Mountain lions, alligators and zebras are just a few of the nearly 2,500 “dangerous wild animals” being kept by private collectors in England, according to a survey of council licensing data.
The list includes Bactrian camels in Sedgemoor, gray wolves in West Berkshire, honey badgers in Cornwall and deadly snakes in Bolsover.
The survey found the Buckinghamshire council area leads the country, with 325 dangerous wild animals registered, including blackbuck antelope, capuchin monkeys, lemurs and ostriches.
West Oxfordshire district council, with 200 exotic animals licensed, came second – with the large total including animals at Heythrop Zoological Gardens, an unlicensed zoo run by ex-circus trainer Jim Clubb, who hires out animals including trained hippos, tigers and zebras for TV shows, films and private parties.
Cornwall came in third place, with 165 dangerous wild animals registered – many of which belong to collector and conservationist Todd Dalton, who runs the Feral-Wild Animal Project, a menagerie including two sun bears and a large variety of big cats.
There are 15 different species of exotic feline owned privately in Cornwall, including a cheetah, a mountain lion, a snow leopard and a striped hyena.
Cornwall has for decades been dogged by rumors of big cats on the loose, with reports concentrated around the north-eastern area of Bodmin Moor.
Skeptics have scoffed at stories about the “Beast of Bodmin”, saying the climate and limited food supply would make sustaining a breeding population on the moors impossible. But a privately maintained population of big cats could provide a plausible explanation for such sightings.
Police around the country received 32 calls about big cat sightings in 2021, and last year, Devon and Cornwall police recorded a sighting of a lynx in Helston.
England also has numerous bison farms, where the animals are farmed for meat, with 105 of the North American beasts roaming the plains of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, 47 at Bush Farm in Warminster, Wiltshire, and another 40 at a ranch in Durham.
Alligators are registered to owners in South Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire and West Oxfordshire.
One of the world’s most dangerous arachnids, the brown recluse spider, resides in Dacorum, north-west Hertfordshire, with the 2.5cm-long spider capable of dispensing necrotic bites which can destroy blood vessels, tissue and nerves.
Six king cobras – hooded vipers native to South Asian jungles and capable of killing an elephant with a single bite – are registered to owners in Bolsover, Dacorum, Dover, Hertsmere, Stroud and West Northamptonshire.
Various species of venom-spraying snakes, which can poison people from a distance of up to 3 meters, are also slithering around UK vivariums – including the Mozambique spitting cobra, which is registered to owners in Dover and Thanet and must be handled with goggles to avoid its flying cocktail of toxins causing blindness.
Also famous for spitting, camels are another commonly kept pet, with the survey finding six council areas – Melton, North Hertfordshire, North Northamptonshire, Sedgemoor, Staffordshire Moorlands and West Oxfordshire – are home to the two-humped species native to the steppes of central Asia.
Chris Lewis, of Born Free Foundation, said: “I think most people would be shocked to learn that in this day and age so many dangerous wild animals, including big cats, alligators and venomous snakes are being kept by private individuals across the UK.
“Legislation governing the keeping of dangerous wild animals is now almost 50 years old, inconsistent with other animal legislation and fails to ensure the welfare of animals kept under license.
“The intention of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 was to make the private keeping of dangerous wild animals a wholly exceptional circumstance; however, the ongoing trend highlights quite the opposite. Far greater and up-to-date restrictions on the trade in and keeping of wild animals as pets in the UK are needed.
“Any future legislation should provide full consideration of whether the welfare needs of individual animals can be met, and owners have the necessary qualifications and experience; a guarantee that the trade does not compromise conservation of species in the wild; due consideration of potential environmental concerns (such as the establishment of invasive species through escapes, the deliberate releases of unwanted pets, and the possible spread of zoonotic diseases); and confirmation there is no risk to wider health and safety of animals or people.”