Ownership of Wild Animals

Can a person legally own a live wild animal?

A person cannot own, ‘absolutely’, a wild animal while it is alive. However, in certain situations a person may be regarded as being the ‘qualified’ owner of a live wild animal.

Where a person owns something ‘absolutely’ they own it unconditionally and are free to treat, use or dispose of it as they wish. In the case of animals this is subject to legislation such as that relating to the welfare of animals.

Where ownership is ‘qualified’ the person does not have an exclusive or permanent right to the wild animal.

Certain animals are deemed the property of the Crown, for example, whales, sturgeon and wild and unmarked swans and, therefore, cannot be owned by a person other than the Crown.

‘Qualified’ ownership, in the case of live wild animals, can arise in one of three ways.

Tame and reclaimed wild animals

  • Where a person lawfully takes, tames, or reclaims a living wild animal, they can acquire qualified ownership in the wild animal. Once a wild animal has been acquired in this manner, the wild animal becomes the property of the person who has taken, tamed or reclaimed them. The animal remains in the ownership of that person until it is released or it escapes and reverts back to the wild and has no intention of returning to the person.
  • Examples of animals falling within this category will include deer, doves kept in dove coops, wild animals kept by a sanctuary and wild animals kept by a zoo.
  • In many instances, however, there is legislation which prevents a person from lawfully taking, taming or reclaiming a wild animal.
  • In the case of bees, a person can only become their legal owner when the bees are reclaimed by that person and put in a hive. Once they have been hived, the person who put them in the hive becomes the owner and they remain the property of that person even after the bees leave the hive for so long as the bees can be seen and followed. However, ordinarily the owner of the bees will not have the right to follow the swarm on to land belonging to someone else unless they obtain that person’s permission.

Wild animals born on a person’s land

  • Where wild animals are born on land belonging to a person that person ordinarily becomes the qualified owner of the animals. Such animals remain within the ownership of that person until the animals can run or fly away.
  • In the case of cygnets ownership is, however, divided between the owners of the cock and hen swans where they are owned by different people.

Hunting rights

  • If a land owner has an exclusive right to hunt, take and kill wild animals, on his own land, he is regarded as being the qualified owner of such animals while they remain on his land.
  • If the land owner, however, grants the right to hunt, take and kill the wild animals to another person, that other person will be regarded as being the qualified owner of such animals. However, a license of this nature will only be valid if it is created by a deed.

A person cannot legally own ‘absolutely’ game (pheasants, hares and the like). However, the law recognises the need to protect private interests in game. The law does this by limiting rights over game to certain classes of people and by creating criminal offences relating to the taking or destroying of the eggs of certain birds.

What about dead wild animals?

It is possible to own ‘absolutely’ a dead wild animal. When a wild animal dies or is killed the owner of the land on which the animal died or was killed becomes the legal owner of the animal, unless shooting or sporting rights have been granted to another person, in which case that person becomes the owner.

A trespasser, or poacher, who kills a wild animal, will not acquire legal ownership of the animal.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.