1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Lions, tigers, snakes: Wild animals in German households

Rina Goldenberg
July 21, 2023

The hunt for a suspected lion on the outskirts of Berlin led to speculation about where it may have escaped from. Actually, it is remarkably easy to keep even the most exotic pets in Germany.

Lion in Osnabrück zoo looking out of a window of his den
It is legal to keep wild animals like lions as pets in GermanyImage: Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture alliance

Hundreds of police officers, veterinary specialists and hunters were looking for the"free-ranging, dangerous animal" that could be a lion in wooded areas at the southern edge of Berlin, which police after 30 hours said was probably a wild boar.

Regional public broadcaster RBB reported that in Brandenburg alone, 23 lions are registered with the state nature conservation authorities: They are being housed in three circuses, two zoos and one private household. None of them were reported missing.

There are no reliable figures on how many lions may be held as pets across Germany, but it is not generally prohibited anywhere to do so.

Berlin police say lioness at large actually a boar

There are few regulations in Germany about keeping wild animals, so tarantulas, crocodiles, or tigers can also be found in German households.

When wild animals escape

For decades, there have been recurring media reports of venomous snakes and other wild animals escaping from zoos and circuses but also from private homes.

In the summer of 1994 the small alligator "Cayman Sammy" became a celebrity after his owner had taken him along for sunbathing by a lake near the city of Dormagen, where he escaped and was recaptured only after several days.

In August 2019 a venomous snake was on the loose in the city of Herne. It had escaped from a man's apartment, where he was holding over 20 venomous snakes. His monocled cobra was found after several days of hiding in the stairwell of the house, prompting police to evacuate 30 residents from the building and neighboring houses.

The search was expensive and prompted the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia to draft strict legislation on keeping wild animals. But it never got passed.

man carrying cobra in a plastic case
The cobra was captured in Herne, after a search that took days and cost tens of thousands of eurosImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kusch

Trading wild animals via the internet

Germans can purchase exotic animals via pet trade sites on the internet. Although the Federal Environment Ministry does point to the international legal framework stating: "The more endangered the species, the stricter the trade restrictions."

International trade in protected animal species is regulated by the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which lists several endangered species that may not be traded, such as certain great apes, and some parrot species — elephants and rhinos are also protected.

But while such protected species may not captured in the wild to be traded by private individuals, there are some loopholes for animals that were bred in captivity.

The animal rights organization "Pro Wildlife" conducted a study for the German Federal Ministry for the Environment between 2017 and 2019, examining the trade in exotic mammals, reptiles and amphibians in Germany. "Pro Wildlife" biologist Katharina Lameter told Focus magazine that within only six months they had come across 33 offers for lions, six jaguars and six leopards on relevant websites, with asking prices starting at a just few thousand euros — the price of a purebred dog. "Much of the trade, including lions, is not illegal if papers and vaccinations are available," Lameter said.

zookeeper holding Sammy into the camera, after he was brought there for safekeeping
Cayman Sammy spent some happy days in freedom in a lake near DorstenImage: Wolfgang Thieme/ZB/picture-alliance

Few checks on wild animals's living condidtions

The Federal Species Protection Ordinance and the Animal Welfare Act map out regulations for wild animal holders. But Germany's 16 states are tasked with actually regulating wildlife management. Owners of wild animals are obliged to report the possession as well as every purchase and sale of animals to the respective lower nature conservation authority. A majority of states have restrictions on ownership of potentially dangerous animals requiring owners to prove that the animals are kept in a manner appropriate to their species and that they know how to handle the animals.

But animal protection agencies deplore that rules and their implementation are not uniform across the country — and are not always enforced rigorously. Checks on private animal holders are rare.

In 2021, a white lion made the headlines: A farmer in Saxony-Anhalt was reported by an animal welfare group for holding him in conditions in violation of the specifications for enclosure size: the veterinary office fined him and banned him from ever keeping lions. After an extensive legal battle, the owner said he had sold the animal to the Netherlands. But it never arrived there. The lion's whereabouts remain unclear to this day. 

Wildlife Encounters- on safari in Germany

Animal rights activists also challenge the notion of "appropriate" living conditions. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture issued guidelines for animal husbandry for mammals, demanding it be based "on the natural living conditions, current scientific knowledge and zoo-biological experience." It goes on to state that the outdoor enclosure must be at least 200 square meters (2153 square feet) for "one animal or one pair," while the indoor enclosure must have at least 20 square meters of floor space and a height of 2.5 meters.

And animal welfare groups doubt that large predators such as lions can be kept in private enclosures of such a limited size. In the wild, they live in prides of up to 40 animals, roaming a territory that can be up to 400 square kilometers in size.

The animal protection organization PETA has long been advocating a complete ban on keeping wild animals in private households. "In addition to the possible dangers, it is above all the animals themselves that suffer from inadequate conditions," they argue on their website.

"We call on Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir and the government to finally ban the keeping of exotic wild animals such as big cats, monkeys and snakes in private hands and in circuses during the current revision of the Animal Protection Act," PETA wrote in response to the announcement in May by the Green Party minister that the animal protection regulations for domestic and farm animals would be improved.

Animal welfare advocates in several European countries want to better protect exotic by introducing a binding positive list stating all the animals that may be kept in private households at all. France, Belgium and the Netherlands already have such a list.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.