Is it legal to own a serval in Washington state?

It is legal to own a serval in Washington state which is somewhat surprising but I’ll explain why I have come to that conclusion. There is a mishmash of laws governing the ownership of wildlife in this state. Note: for the sake of clarity, I am referring to individual citizens and residents of Washington state and their rights to ownership of exotic animals. Establishments such as zoos, research facilities and circuses et cetera are exempt from the rules that I am mentioning on this page. If you have some doubts then it would pay to telephone Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (360-902-2200).

Asha a serval on TikTok
Asha a pet serval on TikTok. Image: TikTok.
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

The primary Washington state law in respect of owning a serval which is a non-native species to North America is RCW 16.30.030. This concerns a prohibition on “having custody or control of a potentially dangerous wild animal”. There are exceptions to the rule. So, what is a potentially dangerous wild animal under Washington state law?

We can find the answer to that under RCW 16.30.010, which sets out definitions. This list tells us what Washington believes should be classified as dangerous wild animals in the cat family. And I will quote verbatim: ‘Family Felidae, only lions, tigers, captive-bred cougars, jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards’. Washington state consider the above cats ONLY to be potentially dangerous.

As you will see, the serval is not listed and therefore Washington state does not believe that the serval is a dangerous wild animal. As a consequence, there is no ban or bar on keeping such a wild cat species. They don’t request a license or permit as far as I can tell.

The state has another law concerning another type of wildlife namely “deleterious exotic wildlife”. The serval is not mentioned in this section (WAC 220-640-200) of Washington state legislation and therefore it is not relevant to this discussion.

Washington state also has a section in the legislation concerning “wild animals”. My understanding is that this concerns the wild animals of Washington state. Both the bobcat and puma are listed as wild animals and game animals under Washington legislation namely WAC 220-400-020. The state website tells us that it is illegal to own bobcats under this section of state law unless, as I understand it, you have a permit to do so.

To recap, the serval is not mentioned in any of the legislation that I have read online as published by the Washington state government. The source therefore is rock-solid accurate. It is only a question of interpretation of that law. The major law is prohibited dangerous wildlife and as mentioned the serval is not listed.

In fact, the list of wild cats in that section is really quite short and therefore medium and small-sized wild cats such as the caracal, Geoffroy’s cat, Pallas’s cat, Andean Mountain cat, any of the wildcats, Asian leopard cat, and kodkod to name some taken at random are also legal to own. There are others.

African serval jumps about 9 feet from static start
African serval jumps about 9 feet from static start. Screenshot from video.

Some pertinent legislation extracts from Washington State webpages

Below, I reproduce some of the relevant sections of the laws that I have mentioned above in support of my argument.

RCW 16.30.030
Prohibited behavior.
(1) A person shall not own, possess, keep, harbor, bring into the state, or have custody or control of a potentially dangerous wild animal, except as provided in subsection (3) of this section.

RCW 16.30.010
(2) “Potentially dangerous wild animal” means one of the following types of animals, whether bred in the wild or in captivity, and any or all hybrids thereof:
(A) Family felidae, only lions, tigers, captive-bred cougars, jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards;

WAC 220-450-030
Live wildlife—Taking from the wild, importation, possession, transfer, and holding in captivity.
(1) It is unlawful to take live wildlife, wild birds, or game fish from the wild without a permit issued by the director except as otherwise provided by department rule.

Servals are predisposed to domestication of sorts but can be dangerous

The serval is predisposed to being domesticated to a certain extent. There are many servals as domestic pets in American homes. They don’t like being pets in my opinion because many of them escape and many die after they have escaped. The serval is the male parent of the F1 Savannah cat. Many serval owners declaw their serval. This indicates that they consider this medium-sized cat to be able to harm them. If a serval can harm a person, they should be considered dangerous to certain extent. I have been inside an enclosure with a male and female serval. I would consider this to be a dangerous animal. I disagree with the Washington state legislation.

Below are some pages on the serval.

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