Dad, Can We Own a Squirrel?

Logo for Legal Crap My Kids Ask MeMax and August often wonder what animals they can have as pets, namely woodchucks, bears, ocelots, and squirrels. Legally.

When one day they asked about taming a squirrel and bringing it home, I assumed two things. First, we are talking about a gray squirrel, not a flying squirrel. Second, you need to own a squirrel before you can tame it, at least for pet purposes. Sure, you can probably tame a wild squirrel and it could live out its halcyon days in your backyard, retrieving acorns tossed toward the garage. But we are talking about ownership—-i.e., the right to bring a squirrel into the house and family.

The Animal Ownership Food Chain

For the most part, the higher up on the food chain, the harder it is to own it, at least today, and at least in Minnesota, which is not known for being a state full of tamed lions and tigers. Regulated animals in Minnesota include “bears, nonhuman primates, and all the members of the Felidaie family (lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, cheetahs, ocelots, and servals, but not domesticated cats).” This list is similar to those in other states, and a “regulated animal” essentially means it’s pretty difficult to own one personally, if at all. Add to that federal regulations and international treaties, and you begin to narrow the available field for so-called über wild animal pet ownership.

Luckily, however, for squirrel-focused kids who have a hope of playing with tame squirrels, Minnesota squirrels are not “regulated animals.” But that’s only the first legal hurdle.

And Now, Background on Wild Animals & Squirrels

Wild animals in Minnesota are defined as:

all creatures, whether dead or alive, not human, wild by nature, endowed with sensation and power of voluntary motion, and includes mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and mollusks.

This obviously includes squirrels: not human, often dead in our streets, more often alive and wild by nature in our trees, and definitely—at least where I live—endowed with the power to destroy decorative pumpkins.

As a wild animal, though, squirrels in Minnesota are actually owned by the State of Minnesota “in its sovereign capacity of the benefit of all the people in the state.” And a person “may not acquire a property right in wild animals, or destroy them, unless authorized under the game and fish laws.”

So, Yeah, About Squirrels (and Gophers and Coyotes)

There are roughly 285 species of squirrels and, under the law, not all are created equal. Some squirrels are protected, others not so much. Take the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, also known as the Minnesota gopher. Along with with weasels, coyotes, porcupines, and striped skunks, gophers are unprotected wild animals in Minnesota, meaning they are not subject to Minnesota’s game and fish laws. In other words, if you want to “take” or possess a Minnesota gopher—the actual mascot of the University of Minnesota—you could, at least legally. Same goes for a coyote or porcupine, though it’s illegal to import or export a live coyote in or out of Minnesota, at least without a state permit.

Unlike gophers and weasels and coyotes, gray squirrels are considered protected wild animals, subject to the state’s game and fish laws. They are also the most populous squirrels in the state, if not the country. There is probably one outside your window right now, or in your backyard, raiding the bird feeder. Yeah, that kind.

And because the state’s fish and game laws define gray squirrels as protected wild animals and small game, it puts them beyond your reach as a legal pet.

I wrote to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to clarify my research and ask, perhaps, if my kids only needed a permit to own and tame a gray squirrel. A DNR representative kindly wrote back:

Gray and fox squirrels are protected wild animals . . . and small game, with seasons and limits. Minnesota’s game and fish laws require that small game that are taken must be killed. So, it would not be lawful to possess live gray or fox squirrels.

Thirteen lined squirrels are generally referred to as striped gophers. Gophers are unprotected wild animals . . . under Minnesota’s game and fish laws. Unprotected wild mammals could be possessed alive, though I am not convinced that is a good idea—but that wasn’t the question.

There is no permit that I am aware of for a pet gray squirrel.

OK, I Can’t Own One, But I Can Shoot One

It seems odd to raise the question about owning and taming a cute little creature and then asking if you can shoot it, but that’s the game laws, folks. Yes, you can legally shoot a squirrel in Minnesota, at least under two circumstances: 1) it is causing damage to your property; or 2) it is squirrel hunting season and you are hunting a gray or fox squirrel (but not a red squirrel or flying squirrel).

Interestingly, in hunting protected squirrels such as the gray and fox squirrel, you may not set fire to a tree in order to kill it, nor can you enlist the aid of a ferret. Those things are specifically against the law. In addition, if you wound or capture a gray or fox squirrel and it is “reduced to possession,” you must kill it. You cannot capture or “take” a gray or fox squirrel without killing it. Wanted, dead or alive? Sorry, it has to be dead. And that actually puts the final nail in any hope of live pet gray squirrel ownership.

By the way, squirrel hunting season in Minnesota runs from September through February. You are limited to 14 squirrels per day.

Gregory D. Luce is the editor of Bitter Lawyer. Among other things, he writes Legal Crap My Kids Ask Me, answering legal and pseudo-legal questions he actually receives from his kids. Feel free to submit your own legal crap question. God help you if you think any of the answers constitute legal advice.

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