Did you know that it is legal in Virginia for a private citizen to own lions, tigers, bears and wolves? Did you know that a citizen can own a monkey, gorilla or chimpanzee without even having to file for a permit? Following the release of dozens of wild animals in Ohio, many of whom had to be tranquilized, Virginia may be re-addressing the need for stricter regulation on the ownership of wild animals.
Wild animal attacks are rare. Rarer still is the animal that is owned by someone and attacks a person after an escape. But we do hear stories about wild animals getting out of their enclosures and attacking neighbors every now and then.
Maybe as a result of how rare these attacks are, Virginia has a limited amount of law on the topic. The owner of a wild animal is “charged” with the knowledge of that animals natural inclinations and characteristics. This is a “buyer beware” type of law. It means that if you own a lion, the law assumes that you know that it can be a violent animal.
Virginia law imposes on owners of wild animals a “high degree of care” to keep it confined and restrained so as not to cause injury. The term “high degree of care” is not defined by law and it would be up to a jury or a judge at trial to determine whether the owner exercised the required amount of care.
Unlike dog owners, owners of wild animals do not get the benefit of Virginia’s archaic “one free bite” rule. Because the law presumes that wild animals are dangerous, owner liability attaches the first time that a wild animal attacks someone. By contrast, Virginia law does not assume that dogs are vicious until after they have attacked someone (except for certain breeds).
Even with wild animals, Virginia’s contributory negligence rule applies. Contributory negligence means that if the victim’s own negligence contributes at all (even one percent) to the causation of their injuries, then they will receive nothing from a judge or jury. Virginia law with regard to wild animals says that a person who knows that he is in the vicinity of a wild animal is charged with knowledge of its natural inclinations and has a duty to use ordinary care for his own safety. In other words, if you know that your neighbors tiger is on the lose and do not take the appropriate steps to look out for your own safety, you cannot recover any money if the tiger attacks you.