Victory! Congress Shuttering Trade in Big Cats as Pets and Props

All of us at Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation, and the Center for a Humane Economy exhaled from the deepest recesses of our lungs Tuesday night.

A grueling, often maddening, and sometimes enlightening 11-year odyssey to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act concluded with the U.S. Senate taking up the House-passed H.R. 263, passing it unanimously, and sending it on to President Biden. The Biden Administration had, months ago, signaled its support for the measure to crack down in the trade in big cats as props in roadside zoos or as pets. That means we may be at the end of the road when it comes to more drama on the big cats subject.

It’s been nearly three years since the release of the salacious Netflix series “Tiger King,” the documentary that gripped a nation holed up inside by the pandemic and which zeroed in on the conflict between Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage and Big Cat Rescue co-leaders Carole and Howard Baskin. The erstwhile operator of a menagerie with perhaps more than 100 tigers in a tornado-prone community in central Oklahoma, Joe Exotic is now serving a 21-year sentence for putting out a contract to murder Mrs. Baskin and for violating the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act by cruelly killing tigers and falsifying wildlife transaction records.

Now Congress has slammed shut the gate on the pitiful and long-running era of commercial exploitation of big cats as exotic “pets” and roadside petting attractions. I’ve worked on this issue for more than 20 years, helping pass the Captive Wildlife Safety Act in 2003 and then joining the Baskins and others in pushing the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which was rolled out in original form in 2011. That makes the outcome Tuesday night feel both overdue and exhilarating.

Down from more than nearly 60 cub-petting operations just two decades ago, there are now maybe fewer than five such outfits in the United States. There has been tremendous extra-legislative action on the topic, with animal advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Justice taking strong and decisive action to shut down these operators one by one. Nearly all cub-petting operators featured in “Tiger King” are now incarcerated, have had their animals seized, or are facing prosecution. Joe Exotic is just the most prominent example, but others in the field have run into legal jeopardy.

  • Jeff Lowe, who took charge of Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo and intended to open a cub-petting operation in eastern Oklahoma, had his operation raided by federal authorities, who then brought civil charges against him. Lowe’s animals have been confiscated and placed at sanctuaries. 
  • Tim Stark, another prominent Tiger King “star,” had his animals confiscated by the State of Indiana for multiple animal-related and nonprofit-operation violations. He fled the state after criminal charges were filed and a warrant for his arrest was issued. He was found and arrested in New York.
  • Bhagavan “Doc” Antle was arrested on federal charges of money laundering and violating the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. He’s also facing charges by the State of Virginia with 15 counts of wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty.

These entertainment operators are charlatans, their self-serving conservation arguments laughable, their carnival barking an unwelcome distraction. Congress, after an overwhelming showing of public support for our position, said it’s time to end it all.

Cat Fight in Congress

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Me., played central roles in shepherding H.R. 263 to passage, as did Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who were the authors of the original House measure approved in late July. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer then put the measure on the floor, and it passed by a two-to-one margin.

It was a tough challenge in the House, and we fought hard to attract the support of more than 60 Republicans to join all House Democrats in backing the measure. My colleague Marty Irby and I accompanied Carole Baskin on more than 150 Congressional office visits, mainly to Republican offices in the House and Senate. By the time we were done with our pitch, so many of them understood that private citizens owning big cats in communities was not only inhumane but also reckless and dangerous.

The House cleared the bill and gave us five months to complete the job in the Senate. It required nearly that whole period to get it over the finish line. We had tremendous assists from the Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., and Ranking Member Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.V., who each gave their blessing to the bill and allowed us to try to pass it in the Senate. At that point, three lawmakers — Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and James Lankford, R-Okla. — wanted to take a close look at the legislation. They all did, and both Lee and Paul quickly released their holds and supported the measure after we discussed the bill with those two Senators in person. Lankford took a bit more time and effort but pulled through in the end. We spoke in very specific terms about the concerns each of the Senators voiced, and they heard us and learned about a quiet crisis in America with big cats kept in private, dangerous, and inhumane conditions.

The new measure, once signed into law, builds on the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which was passed unanimously in 2003 to ban the trade in big cats as pets. That 2003 measure, it turns out, had a drafting flaw that the Big Cat Public Safety Act remedies, while adding in the restriction on the breeding of big cats for the pet trade and for commercial cub petting. 

The Costs of Big Cat Trade Are Painful for Animals and People

That original bill had been introduced long before “Tiger King” was produced and aired, and we’ve known for a very long time that tigers and lions bred for the pet trade or roadside attractions never lead good lives. They typically live in substandard conditions, and in so many cases, their lives end tragically if they are not picked up by a reputable sanctuary or zoo.

The coalition favoring S. 263 included dozens of law enforcement agencies because their sworn officers are not trained to handle dangerous big cats on the loose or in private residences. The most infamous example occurred in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011, when an emotionally disturbed exotic-animal owner turned 60 large carnivores and other animals into the community as dusk fell. The question became, why does anyone have these animals in their backyard, and why would we tolerate this circumstance once we know about it? Sheriff Matt Lutz, who handled the Zanesville case, joined us in Washington D.C. to advocate for the bill’s passage. He and the National Sheriff’s Association were critical allies at every turn.

Pick your cause for the next dangerous animals-at-large scenario: tornado, derecho, troubled owner, vandal, disgruntled employee cutting a hole in a fence. Any one of them might trigger a Zanesville-like tragedy at any one of the facilities with a large number of powerful captive wild animals amid a deficit of proper protocols or suitable housing.

When big cats are confiscated or abandoned by owners who finally realize they are too much to handle, these animals become an unfunded liability for the already struggling animal welfare community. Sanctuaries, reputable zoos, and animal welfare groups step up to take in these big cats to help them, but it comes at an enormous and unanticipated expense — as much as $1 million to house, feed, and care for a single tiger over a 20-year lifespan.

It seems hardly worth the trauma to these animals and the risks and costs to the rest of society for a handful of people to pet a tiger cub for 10 minutes so the roadside zoo owner can pocket $25 for each cub petting session.

National legislation on animal welfare is often about going to the source of the problem, and that’s exactly what this legislation does. We salute lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for carefully examining the issue and helping these big cats to spare them their misery, to spare sanctuaries the unanticipated costs of care, and to spare first responders, law enforcement, and other community members the risks of encountering a tiger, lion, or leopard in their neighborhoods.

We’ve had enough of the cruelty and chaos of exotic animal fanciers and roadside big cat attractions in the United States. And, apparently, so has Congress.

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