Keeping An Owl As A Pet Not A Good Idea, It’s About The Worst Pet You Could Ever Get — And It’s Illegal

Inspired to own a pet owl based on our story about the Game and Fish Department's rescued owl "Jupiter"? Don't be. Not only is owning an owl illegal, they would be about the worst pet you could ever own. Worse than a great white shark, in fact.

Mark Heinz

March 27, 20235 min read

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If you’re thinking about keeping an owl as a pet, don’t. 

Not only is it illegal, it’s likely you’d quickly find yourself in over your head trying to care for it, wildlife experts say. And the owl would probably die.

“These birds need a particular diet, a particular feeding schedule and a particular type of housing. And if you don’t have that, they’re not going to make it,” Susan Ahalt, who founded and runs Ironside Bird Rescue near Cody, told Cowboy State Daily. 

“This is not something you do 9-5,” she said about caring for an owl. “You’re on call 24 hours a day.”

She’s been rescuing and rehabilitating wild birds, including many owls, for 36 years.

About 20 years ago, Ahalt took in a great horned owl that was later named Jupiter. It was discovered that he had partially detached retinas in his eyes and couldn’t see well enough to hunt. 

So, Jupiter was given a permanent home at the Wyoming Game and Fish department office in Lander. 

Not There To Inspire Ownership

Jupiter is an “educational raptor” for Game and Fish. That means he’s frequently taken to school classrooms, art classes and other venues so people can learn more about raptors or use him as a live model for drawing and painting. 

His primary handler, Rene Schell, said sometimes when people see her out with Jupiter, they express interest in having an owl of their own. 

But that’s not a good idea, she told Cowboy State Daily.

“The quick answer is that it wouldn’t be legal and possessing the feathers of raptors is illegal,” she said. “Many people don’t realize that.”

Handlers like Schnell and rehabilitators like Ahalt must have both federal and state permits to keep owls and other raptors, as well as extensive training in how to care for the birds.

Getting permitted is a lengthy and complicated process, Schell said. 

“I have requirements that I have to meet and they have standards for what organizations and groups can keep raptors for education,” she said. 

Just Not The Pet Type

Legal concerns aside, owls – and raptors in general – just don’t make for good pets, Ahalt said. Even many of the sick or injured birds she’s trying to rehabilitate seem to resent her. 

“It’s a POW camp,” she said of how the birds seem to view their time being rehabilitated. “We’re the jailers, and they just sit there and glare at you.”

Ahalt said that years ago, she took in a female great horned owl that a woman had illegally tried to keep as a pet until Game and Fish found out about it and confiscated it.

It didn’t end well for the owl, Ahalt said. 

Because it hadn’t been properly kept and tended to, it was beyond rehabilitation. 

“She was one of the meanest birds I ever had. She wouldn’t eat anything I tried to give her and she just hated her life. I finally had to put her down,” she said. 

Ahalt’s primary goal is to get raptors hunting again and get them back out into the wild. It’s only the rare bird that simply can’t recover that’s handed over professionals like Game and Fish for educational purposes. 

“As soon as they demonstrate to me that they can catch prey on their own, then they go back into the wild,” she said.

Consider Volunteering Instead

For those who would like to spend more time around owls and other raptors – without going through the permitting process and the extensive training it takes to do it full-time – there is an option, said Andrea Orabona, a retired Game and Fish non-game bird biologist who for years was one of Jupiter’s handlers. 

People can volunteer to help rehabilitation centers like Ahult’s, she said, just don’t expect it to be easy.

Ahult said she appreciates the help she gets from volunteers, but they need to understand that it’s not fun and games, and the birds probably won’t warm up to them.

To feed the raptors, “You’re going to be cutting up dead things or making things dead,” she said. “You’re going to clean dirty cages and things like that. You’re not going to pet the birds. I don’t play with the birds. They can be nasty. They’re meant to be nasty.”

That’s nothing to take personally, she said. It’s just the owls’ place in nature as a fearsome predator that gives them that temperament. 

“They’re called ‘the tiger of the sky’ for a reason,” Ahalt said. “They’ll kill something just to kill it.”

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter