This has to be one of the most common things I hear from kids and teachers: “I want to keep a praying mantis as a pet, but it’s illegal!” or “I want to keep them, but they’re endangered!”
The other big myth associated with mantids is that it’s illegal to kill them.
These are myths. If you have a nice big mantis in your garden, and you want to bring it in as a pet, please go right ahead! It is NOT illegal to have a wild-caught mantis as a pet.
I’d prefer that you not kill one, but if you do, don’t worry that police will be breaking down your door
What kinds of praying mantids are in the US?
There are 20 native kinds of mantis in the US, and many of them are small and brown. You might not even notice them.
The common big green mantis in the US actually isn’t a native species–it was imported from China in the late 1890′s. The plan was to have them work as biological control agents, and to eat pest insects.
That worked pretty well, but because of their size, the bigger Chinese mantis will also chow down on the smaller native mantids. This has led to declines in population numbers of the native mantis species in some areas, but none of them are listed as threatened at this time.
There are also two other introduced species, the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa) and a Narrow-winged mantis (Tenodera angustipennis). The National Zoo has a quick guide to identifying the most common mantids in the US (3 introduced species, one native one) apart. If you really want to get technical about your identification, you can find a link to a key at BugGuide.
My suggestion would be to let the little guys go, and keep the bigger Chinese and European mantids as pets. But that’s not a law, as much as I would like my word to be law.
So, where did this idea of it being illegal to have a mantis come from?
The majority of mantids in the world are in Asia, where many of them are endangered. For the most part, keeping a mantis that is not a native species of the US is illegal (except for the Chinese, European, and Narrow-winged mantids mentioned above).
Nearly all non-native insects (and other animals) are regulated by the federal government. So, if you wanted to import and keep one of the beautiful Orchid Mantis species, that would be illegal to keep as a pet, unless you got a special permit from the USDA. (Orchid mantids aren’t an endangered species.)
There’s a list of some insects you can have as pets without a permit here, and and additional info here (pdf). Basically, as long as you aren’t bringing a mantis into the US, or crossing a state line with it, you should be just fine.
Regulations for endangered species are much more strict, and don’t just cover living insects. For example, if a museum wants to have a dead insect that is on an endangered species list, it has to have a CITES permit! [Aside: If you see someone selling living or dead endangered species with out CITES certification, please report them! There was actually a recent case of someone being arrested for smuggling endangered butterflies across federal borders.]
The introduced mantids in the United States are in a funny loophole–because they are considered beneficial predators, it’s not illegal to collect or sell them. They are already in the US, and have been here for quite a while. There may be some state or local exceptions to catching and/or killing them, but:
A. I can’t find any evidence for current existence of those laws; and
B. Who really is going to be driving around and busting you for illegal mantis possession in your backyard?
Getting a permit isn’t expensive, and helps protect us all from the possibility of an escaped invasive species.
- Information about permits for insects and other arthropods
- Importing and exporting wildlife (US Fish and Wildlife Service)
- InsectNet.com’s info about permits (pretty extensive info!)
- An interesting article about Florida regulation of pet trade in insects (PDF)
- Released pet stick insects become a pest in California
- The actual USDA form you’ll need to import an exotic mantis (PDF)
- The Mantid forum
- How to build a cage for pet singing insects
Also, females don’t really eat their mates, but that’s another “ask an entomologist” topic
[image courtesy Wikipedia]