If you live in the city, the array of wild animals you'll see is fairly limited. Of course, there are squirrels and chipmunks, and you'll very occasionally run into a deer, raccoon or rabbit (unless you live in Boston). But that's pretty much it for city-dwellers. If you live in the woods, however, you might know the unique thrill of seeing something truly exotic. Foxes, coyotes, bears, and if you’re really unlucky, fisher cats. It's all about your environment, it seems.
But increasingly, it's less about your environment and more about your neighbors. If you have the wrong neighbor, you or your loved ones might come face to face with a tiger, cobra, or leopard. Perhaps it is a reflection of our increasingly artificial surroundings, but more and more people are making the decision to own/adopt/buy exotic pets. These animals can look cute and cuddly one minute and turn into vicious predators the next.
From a torts perspective, owners of exotic pets almost certainly have assumed a risk--but their neighbors haven't. You can be certain that in most jurisdictions if you own a serval and it mauls the kid across the street, you are going to be on the wrong side of a torts judgment. But this is America! So of course you can buy insurance to protect your pocketbook in case that serval attacks your neighbor. And the exotic pet insurance business is booming.
As you'll see throughout This Year in Torts, insurance plays an enormous role in our torts system. If torts is primarily about making victims whole and setting norms, insurance does both. The mauled neighbor will be compensated for their injuries, but the insurance market will also strongly encourage exotic pet owners to maintain proper facilities to prevent attacks in the first place. As a parallel, consider the way automobile insurance policies provide discounts for advanced safety features and safe driving. That is, insurance pricing and availability can encourage owners of inherently dangerous things to maintain those things in a more safe manner. Add in the fact that some state and local governments require owners of inherently dangerous things to have insurance (for example, here’s Georgia’s exotic pet law), and it seems like a useful and important way to not only compensate victims but also to make society safer.
But does the existence of insurance actually encourage the ownership of inherently dangerous things? Could it be that the existence of exotic pet insurance leads people to think it's ok to own a pack of wolves just across the street from a preschool? When is a thing too dangerous, and too unnecessary, for us to allow insurance markets to exist? Obviously cars are ok--they are somewhat dangerous and very necessary in our society. But what about a small-scale nuclear weapon? Would we allow insurance for that? Couldn't it be argued that a tiger is just too dangerous and not useful enough for a private person to own and thus insure?
A hybrid approach--pun intended--has caused the emergence of hybrid wild animals. So instead of a serval, one might own a serval-domestic cat hybrid. Get the look of the serval and the lap-kittiness of a domestic, some think. Of course genetics don't really work that way. You very well might end up with the look of a tabby but the viciousness of a leopard. In fact, there are nearly limitless stories of hybrid cat owners being taken by surprise by just how wild little Patches actually is. Communities across the United States are struggling now with how to classify these animals, with most settling on definitions regarding the number of generations removed from the "wild" an animal must be in order to be considered domesticated. A serval hybrid with only one exotic great-great grandparent may be considered domesticated and not subject to exotic pet insurance.
So the next time you are playing frisbee in your backyard and you run into an animal that looks like a leopard, it's probably worth paying a visit to your neighbors. Be sure to ask about that cat's family tree and whether they have insurance. The answers might just make a difference if you have a less than pleasant encounter with the cat and seek redress.