What you should know about residents with unusual pets

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 5 min. read

Published on March 31, 2016

For the majority of people, the idea of keeping a tarantula as a pet is probably very unsettling. Personally, a fluffy Golden Retriever is perfectly fine, thank you very much.

But there are those among us who just love the idea of owning an exotic pet. And in lieu of moving to the jungle to live among the chimps, toucans, and jaguars, they bring them into their home as a member of the family.

For example, the infamous Travis the Chimp, who lived in Stamford, Connecticut with Sandra Herold for 15 years. He was beloved in the community, loved ice cream and baseball, and never once harmed Sandra, her daughter, or her husband.

But then, in 2009, Sandra gave a rather hyper Travis some Xanax, but it had the opposite effect it should’ve: Travis viciously attacked Sandra, her friend Charla, and the police who came to assist after a frantic 911 call.

Sandra passed away a few years later, but ultimately Charla was awarded $4 million in a settlement to cover her pain, suffering, and dismemberment. Which is, suffice it to say, not nearly enough to pay her ongoing medical bills for the rest of her life.

If this happened on your one of your rental properties, would your insurance cover your liability? It’s not likely.

This is why it’s worth being aware of every pet living on your properties.

Should You Ban Unusual Pets?

Chimpanzees cost about $60,000 up front, so you probably won’t have to worry much about a Travis situation. But you should consider rules for large birds, snakes, and spiders.

Because even if the animal isn’t a danger, their preferred diet might be a pest. Consider the weekly delivery of mice, rats, or crickets (you can buy 1,000 live crickets on Amazon for $14.99. And yes, they must be alive and chirping to satisfy a hungry bearded dragon).

Can you sleep at night knowing 1,000 live crickets could get knocked out of their terrarium? Could your tenants?

If not, do you have the tools in place to restrict the types of pets that might bring more creatures into your properties?

If you’re running a condominium building or managing a property on behalf of a homeowners association or community association, the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&R), or the bylaws, which have been approved by the Board of Directors, are binding and enforceable on all owners.
If you’re running an apartment building and handling leases out of your office, be sure the language on the lease document is specific about pet rules and restrictions.

What If a Resident Breaks the Rules?

If the pet owner is a renter, and they are in violation of the lease, you can issue a three-day repair or quit notice. If they fail to get rid of the pet and comply with the lease, then you can go through the eviction process.

It’s trickier if the pet owner is a condo owner, or is renting a unit from the unit owner. In that case, there’s no immediate eviction remedy. So you’re stuck with issuing fines (if your governing documents provide for such a fine) and eventually moving to foreclose on the unit.

But if there’s no state law prohibiting ownership of this particular animal, and your governing documents contain no language prohibiting it, then everyone negatively affected by the 60-pound squealing pig your lovely young couple in apartment 305B bought for themselves for Christmas is out of luck.

What About Your Own Liability?

It’s easy enough to put restrictions into leases or CC&Rs, but be careful not to run afoul of applicable federal laws. If you have a resident who says their beloved pet is a service iguana, or a therapy tarantula, things can get very tricky very fast. The reason: Unlike the Americans With Disabilities Act that applies to commercial spaces and limits the definition of service animal to include dogs and horses trained to perform a specific service for the owner, the Fair Housing Act has a very broad, expansive definition that includes untrained ‘therapy’ animals that doesn’t provide any species restrictions.

If the tenant or owner gets a medical professional to sign off on an affidavit that says their 4-foot-long monitor lizard is medically necessary because depression/anxiety/PTSD, then proceed with caution. And consult a lawyer.

And, what if you don’t want to ban any pets?

If, maybe you’re just a softie for animals, and you allow exotic pets, you may consider asking the owner to maintain liability insurance to protect other residents, guests and staff.

Renters and ordinary homeowners’ insurance may exclude liability arising from exotic pets, or even specific breeds of dogs. There are a few carriers out there that are writing liability policies specifically to cover damages caused by exotic pets (this may run the gamut from reptiles that spread salmonella, screeching, disease-carrying birds, or even just dogs that chew through fence posts.

You can charge an extra fee, as long as it’s provided for in your governing documents or in the lease, if you’re leasing directly. However, you can’t charge an extra fee for service animals as defined under the Fair Housing Act.

Finally, speak with your own property and casualty agent or risk management professional. Ensure that not only the tenant, but your business is adequately covered against lawsuits that may arise targeting you for any damages an exotic pet may cause.

Read more on Resident Management
Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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