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Back to Regulations Concerning the Private Possession of Big Cats

I.  Introduction

Ownership of dangerous wild animals is permitted in England, but is subject to obtaining a license for each animal held.  There are an extensive number of animals that are subject to the licensing requirements under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, as amended.  The common name of wild cats that are subject to ownership restrictions are stated as follows:

All cats including the bobcat, caracal, cheetah, jaguar, leopard, lion, lynx, ocelot, puma, serval, tiger.  The wild cat, the pallas cat, the little spotted cat, the Geoffroy’s cat, the kodkod, the bay cat, the sand cat, the black-footed cat, the rusty-spotted cat and domestic cat are excepted. [1]

This list is kept under review and has been updated on a number of occasions, with the most recent amendment occurring in 2007.[2]   The amendment removed from the list of animals requiring a license

cat hybrids having a domestic cat as one parent and a first generation hybrid of a domestic cat and a non-excepted cat as the other parent, and cats which are descended exclusively from such excepted hybrids or from such excepted hybrids and a domestic cat.[3]

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II.  License Requirements

Licenses are required for all animals that are listed under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, as amended.  These licenses are provided on an annual basis, and expire on December 31st of the year they are issued.

An application to the local authority for a license must include both the species and number of animals for each species that the applicant proposes to keep and the specifics of the premises where the animals will be kept.[4] In order to grant the license, the local authority must be satisfied of a number of requirements, including that

  • the ownership of the animal is not contrary to public safety,
  • the applicant is a suitable person to hold a license,
  • the accommodation the animal is held in is secure and suitable for the number of animals it holds, and
  • measures are in place to secure the animal in case of fire or other emergencies and that the animal will be adequately exercised.[5]

To ensure that the accommodation the animal will be held in is suitable and secure, a veterinarian is required to inspect the premises where the animal will normally be held prior to the issuance of any license.[6]  The inspection considers not just the animals that are present but the possibility of intentional or accidental breeding of the animals and the impact of this on the number of animals present.[7]  In addition to the requirement of a license, applicants should ensure that they meet any required planning permission for the set up of any required enclosures.[8]  Once the local authority receives the report of the veterinarian and is satisfied that the premises are suitable, the local authority may grant a license.[9]

Licenses are issued and include certain conditions that require

  • the holder to be the person who keeps the animals,
  • the animal to be kept at the premises specified in the license, and
  • the holder to maintain an insurance policy that insures him or her against any liability for damage caused by the animal.[10]

These conditions are required to be included in every license.  Additional conditions may include restrictions on the species and number of animals that may be held, or any other restriction that the local authority feels is necessary to enable it to meet the objectives listed above.[11]  The local authority may vary the license at any time, such as by adding, varying, or revoking conditions, other than the required conditions.[12]

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III.  Exemptions

There are certain exemptions to the Act that apply to dangerous or wild animals that are kept in a zoo that has a valid license under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, a circus, a licensed pet shop under the Pet Animals Act 1951, or a place that is a “designated establishment” under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.[13]

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IV.  Enforcement Measures

If animals are being kept without a license, or if they are being kept with a license but the terms are being breached, the local authority where the animal is being held may seize the animal and keep it, or destroy or otherwise dispose of it.  No compensation is required to be paid to any person if the local authority exercises these powers,[14] and if the local authority incurs any expenses when exercising these powers it may recover the amount from the person who was at the time the keeper[15] or license holder of the animal.[16]  Anyone who holds an animal without a license or commits any offense under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 is liable, upon summary conviction, to a fine of up to £2,000 (approximately US$3,500).[17]

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V.  Operation of the Act

In 2010 a newspaper collated data obtained under Freedom of Information requests sent to every local authority across England and reported that there were 4,296 animals held with a license under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act.  One hundred thirty-seven of these were wildcats that included leopards and lynx.[18]   There are reports of animals licensed under the Act escaping; however, these do not appear to be dangerous predatory animals and no news reports of anyone being injured by an escaping animal were located.[19]

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Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
June 2013


[1] Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, c. 38,, as amended by Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) Order 2007, SI 2007/1437, ¶ 2, sched., http://www.legis

[2] Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) Order 2007, SI 2007/1437, uksi/2007/1437/contents/made.

[3]Id., Explanatory Note.

[4] Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, c. 38, § 1,

[5] Specifically, the Act requires the local authority to be satisfied that

(a) it is not contrary to the public interest on the grounds of safety, nuisance or otherwise to grant the licence;

(b) the applicant for the licence is a suitable person to hold a licence under this Act;

(c) any animal concerned will at all times of its being kept only under the authority of the licence—

(i) be held in accommodation which secures that the animal will not escape, which is suitable as regards construction, size, temperature, lighting, ventilation, drainage and cleanliness and which is suitable for the number of animals proposed to be held in the accommodation, and

(ii) be supplied with adequate and suitable food, drink and bedding material and be visited at suitable intervals;

(d) appropriate steps will at all such times be taken for the protection of any animal concerned in case of fire or other emergency;

(e) all reasonable precautions will be taken at all such times to prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases;

(f) while any animal concerned is at the premises where it will normally be held, its accommodation is such that it can take adequate exercise.  Id. § 1(3).

[6] Id. § 3.

[7] Guidelines to Dangerous Wild Animals, Shepway District Council, ¶ 1, File/pdf/licensing/licensing/dangerous-wild-animals-information.pdf (last visited May 28, 2013).

[8] Id.

[9] Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, c. 38, § 1,

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. § 5.

[14] Id. § 4.

[15] A local authority has stated that “[a] person is regarded as the ‘keeper’ of the animal if they have it in their possession.  They remain the ‘keeper’ and therefore are responsible for the animal, even if it escapes or it is being transported.”  Licence – Dangerous Animals, Derby City Council, (last visited May 28, 2013). 

[16] Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, c. 38, § 4,

[17] Id. § 6.

[18] Jasper Copping, Pet Croc Swaps Swamp for a Cosy Bungalow in Wilds of Kent, The Sunday Telegraph, Jan. 17, 2010, at 9 (accessed via Lexis).

[19] David Randall & Tom Anderson, Why Do Thousands of Us Think We’ve Seen Big Cats Every Year?, Independent on Sunday, Mar. 27, 2005, at 15 (accessed via Lexis).

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Last Updated: 06/30/2015