Think of everything that makes a great pet. There are many great animals out there, of course, and plenty of different tastes when it comes to what people want in a pet, but you can still probably think of a few things that most have in common – and practically none of them align with bats.
Loyal and easily trainable? Sanitary and easy to care for? Able to adapt to different situations and living spaces easily? Safe for most people to own and common enough to be readily available without any special permits. Just about every bat species you can think of violates most, if not all, of those precepts.
But let’s say that you don’t care about any of that. Your heart has been won over by these little flying mammals of the night and you can’t help but want a bat for your own as a pet. Is that even possible?
Well, for the vast majority of the population, the answer is no. Given everything from their protected status to the extreme difficulty of taking care of bats, it is extraordinarily hard to own a bat legally as a pet in the United States. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at why that is and how things break down at a state and federal level.
Why Bats Don’t Make Great Pets
First, though, it’s worth taking a closer look at just why bats are awful pets for most people, in large part because their unsuitability as pets helps inform the kind of laws we see to prevent them from being kept as such.
For starters, it’s fair to say that owning a pet with fangs that has a taste for blood is a bad idea. Granted, most bats don’t actually suck blood and instead prefer a diet of fruit or insects instead; however, as we’ll see, that can also pose major problems. Either way, a bite from a bat is the last thing you want and it’s not as though bats are easily trained.
They are not commonly available, either, in part because they aren’t easily trainable but also because many species are already threatened due to human interaction and encroachment, which in turn is part of the rational for many of the protectionist measures we see against bat pet ownership today at both the state and federal level.
In addition, you can’t just feed anything to a bat and expect it to stay healthy. Vampire bats aside, most bats require either hundreds of insects per day or a specialized fruit diet to survive, neither of which are easy for most pet owners to replicate. You don’t want to be responsible for a bat’s malnutrition but unless you have vast amounts of insects or access to highly specific tropical fruits, bat diets can be impossible to adequately replicate.
One of the biggest sticking points for owning a pet bat legally in the US or other countries, as we’ll see in the laws and regulations below, is the space in which you keep them. Keeping a bat in a tiny cage is horribly inhumane, condemning them to a miserable experience and drastically shortening their lifespan from the 25 years of many wild bats. Instead, you’ll need to build bats a proper enclosure, which can be many feet long, wide, and high. This is not just costly but, again, needs to tick off a lot of boxes in order for you to receive a permit. Most people simply do not possess the time, resources, patience, or training to erect these enclosures properly or else have a licensed party do so for them.
Then there is the fact that bats are disease carriers and hygiene nightmares. Some think that bats sold in food markets were an origin site for the spread of SARS and we all know about the danger bats pose in terms of rabies. Even imagining the best scenario possible, however, with bats that are both disease-free and docile enough to refrain from biting you, they can still be — let’s be frank — disgusting with how they spray their feces and urine with reckless abandon. For the bat, this is all part of their daily routine in terms of marking territory. For you, it means an odious, unhygienic, scat-splattered interior that’s a germ nightmare; plus, again, that’s still assuming that your bat doesn’t have diseases, which is no easy bet.
In fact, one of the most common causes of people wondering if they can keep bats as pets is also one of the biggest reasons for laws against doing so: finding a “stray” bat on the ground and wanting to care for it.
However, bats on the ground are often there because they are diseased and dangerous. Many bats almost never touch the ground so for you to find one in that position is already a red flag that it isn’t in good health. For that reason, everyone from the CDC to animal control groups strongly urges people not to approach or pick up bats on the ground, let alone keep them as pets.
In short, while it’s good that you’re so passionate about wanting to help bats (and can do so by contacting humane animal control agencies) picking them up and keeping them pets is one of the worst things you can do for their health and yours.
The Illegality of Bats as Pets: International and Federal Laws
But let’s say that you don’t want to pick up a stray, dangerous bat but simply want to buy a healthy one from overseas. Even so, the weight of the law is strongly against you. In terms of the actual laws governing the sale and distribution of bats, there are many things that you have to do in order to earn a permit, which is necessary for obtaining bats legally both within the US itself and from overseas sellers.
For one thing, as mentioned above, you need to make sure that you can prove that you have a bat enclosure that meets requirements put forth by groups such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. They have a highly detailed checklist that spells out what needs to be done to keep bats safely. This includes the size and space of the sanctuary, sanitation requirements, temperature and lighting requirements, adequate security measures to make sure that the bats don’t break free, nutritional and socialization requirements, and much more.
For these reasons, bat ownership in the US is typically restricted to zoos, professional enclosures such as wildlife sanctuaries and licensed animal rescue shelters, and research centers.
The Endangered Species Act generally forbids keeping animals classified as such as pets, putting a federal damper on those thinking exotic bat pets are a good idea. It is also worth noting that, with the ongoing COVID crisis, China has banned much wildlife trade and other nations have or are likely to pass similar protections, adding one more (for now, likely impassable) hurdle to acquiring an exotic bat.
The Illegality of Bats and Pets: State Laws
That said, because Article I of the Constitution places restrictions on the federal government in terms of the degree of control it can exercise over interstate trade, laws surrounding the legality or illegality of exotic pets such as bats are more commonly handled at the state level.
An example of this complication comes in the way that bats are classified. In Nevada and Montana, for example, bats are classified as exotic animals, which means that you will need to get a permit to house them. However, the exact nature of that permit can be hard to ascertain and which exotic animals are even allowed under such laws are constantly in flux. Further, while the points set forth by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and similar organizations may not be “binding” within the US per se, they are nevertheless essential guidelines along which many state laws regarding any legal keeping of bats as pets are crafted.
At the state level, the legality of owning bats is always subject to change but as of this writing, at least 31 states have full or partial bans in place for ownership of exotic animals. In the case of partial bans — which are the law of the land in states such as Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Tennessee — bans on ownership of exotic animals are centered around often-changing lists. Whether bats qualify as this can prove tricky but, as demonstrated by the Nevada and Montana examples, they often do.
In 14 other states, such as Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, and Texas, there isn’t necessarily a ban in place but you’ll still have to be in accordance with strict licensure measures to legally own bats as pets.
The remaining five states — Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin — do not require licensure to the same extent of those listed above but still may require some other form of “proof” that the animals can be properly housed. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is and there is no one answer as to what can constitute “proof” in these states, let alone whether those measures will be adequate in any of the others in this category or the other 45 states.
For example, while Alabama has stricter codes surrounding the legality and transport of certain fish, deer, foxes, and skunks, and bans keeping many of them as pets, they do not have a similar law for bats. What’s more, not only does North Carolina not have laws expressly forbidding keeping domestic bats as pets but North Carolinian bat enthusiast groups post tips for building bat boxes.
Florida, as always, is a bit of a wild card here with a mixture of bans and licensures; once again, though, this is vague when it comes to bats, especially those indigenous to the area. In fact, it’s actually one of the few states where pet bat ownership is legal though how that might mesh with its mixture of bans and licensure requirements is a more complicated, case by case basis.
California is the only state listed here that expressly lists bats among a set of concrete rules about owning wild as well as exotic animals.
Even if you live in a state where laws around exotic pet and bat ownership are laxer, however, you may still be stymied by other laws surrounding the transportation of animals. As mentioned, bats are often federally protected species, which means that you can still face severe penalties for killing them, which may happen even if you don’t intend to do so given their particular living needs as explained above. Even if you don’t hit that snag, however, given the fact they are such notorious spreaders of disease, the transport of bats requires CDC approval and chances are that they won’t give that just so you can have a “cool” pet. This kind of certification is typically only given to sanctuaries, zoos, and similar accredited organizations that already have the immense facilities and staff needed to deal with them.
As such, you can be tripped up not by a law banning bat ownership per se but by this ordinance concerning the CDC and bat transport.
So, Is a Pet Bat Legal?
Technically maybe, depending on where you live and what kind of licensure and resources you have.
Practically speaking, however, unless you are a zoo, research facility, wildlife sanctuary, or similar center, you almost certainly don’t have and are unlikely to meet those all-important criteria for legally keeping bats.
Let’s be real. If you are reading this article, you almost certainly do not have the space, money, qualifications, and legal understanding of what it takes to keep bats legally; otherwise you wouldn’t need to check. Bats are fascinating creatures but they require a ton of space, care, and protection. And given the potential health risk they pose, we likewise need protection from inadvertent exposure.
Everything that makes bats what they are also makes them an awful candidate for a pet and, in most states and situations, barring hard-to-obtain licenses, an illegal one at that.