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Big Cat Public Safety Act passes House, a step to end cub petting

The bill, backed by welfare groups like Tampa’s Big Cat rescue, must be voted on by the Senate before its end-of-year recess.
Cub petting, shown here by a group of customers visiting Dade City's Wild Things in 2013, would be outlawed by the proposed Big Cat Public Safety Act. The House passed the bill on Thursday and it now goes to the Senate.
Cub petting, shown here by a group of customers visiting Dade City's Wild Things in 2013, would be outlawed by the proposed Big Cat Public Safety Act. The House passed the bill on Thursday and it now goes to the Senate. [ Tampa Tribune ]
Published Dec. 4, 2020
Updated Dec. 4, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday brought the country one step closer to ending private ownership of big cats and cub petting, a business that is a leading driver of the overpopulation of big cats in captivity.

With a vote of 272 to 114, the House passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would outlaw exotic cats as pets and ban the practice of roadside zoos selling photo-ops and cuddle sessions with cubs. Sanctuaries, zoos and universities would still be able to own big cats under the proposed law.

Individuals who currently own big cats would be grandfathered in but required to register their pets so local authorities are aware that exotic animals live in their communities, a universal disclosure now lacking amid states’ mishmash of regulations.

The bill was first introduced in 2012 with backing from a coalition of national animal welfare organizations, including Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. It passed the House for the first time this year following unprecedented attention on the exploitation of big cats in America prompted by the March release of Netflix’s Tiger King series.

“We are thrilled that the Big Cat Public Safety Act passed the House with bipartisan support to protect the big cats from abuse, the public and first responders from injuries and death, and the tiger in the wild from extinction,” Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin said in a statement. “None of these important goals are partisan in any way and we hope the Senate will follow suit quickly to make it into law.”

If the Senate does not take up the bill before its end-of-year recess, Big Cat Public Safety Act will have to be re-introduced again next year. It has a bipartisan mix of 36 Senate co-sponsors.

Tiger King followed the antics of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, known as Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma zoo-keeper who profited from incessantly breeding tigers and selling encounters with cubs. The show featured Maldonado-Passage’s disdain for Baskin, who for years has advocated to end the pay-to-play industry.

Maldonado-Passage was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison for wildlife crimes that included killing five tigers to make room for new animals at his zoo, as well as plotting to have Baskin murdered.

Tiger King, for all of its flaws, did really elevate this issue into public consciousness and then there was an ability to have work done further educating the public about what is actually happening to these cats,” said Kate Dylewsky, senior policy advisor for the Animal Welfare Institute, which helped push the legislation with Big Cat Rescue and other groups.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many big cats live in captivity in the United States, because five states have no laws on keeping exotic cats as pets and 26 other states have inconsistent regulations. There is also no reliable reporting system for those who breed and ship cubs over state lines, blurring inventory counts the federal government is supposed to take each year on licensed exhibitors.

But former estimates have put the number at nearly 10,000, while there are fewer than 4,000 tigers in the wild.

“Cub petting is a primary cause of the overpopulation of big cats in the U.S. because these facilities incessantly breed for the purpose of having cubs that they can profit off of through cub petting and photo ops,” Dylewsky said. “Once they outgrow that purpose, they need to go somewhere and they are funneled into private hands and other roadside zoos or possibly even killed and sold for their parts in the black market.”

The crisis also poses a major threat to public safety. In 2011, the owner of a backyard menagerie in Ohio released his tigers, leopards, lions, bears and other exotic animals before committing suicide. Local authorities were unprepared in responding and had to shoot and kill 50 animals as they roamed the streets.

The exploitation also overwhelms legitimate zoos and sanctuaries that struggle to absorb all of the animals that require re-homing from abuse cases, private hands and law enforcement confiscations.

In April, Dade City’s Wild Things closed after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals won a federal lawsuit challenging its cub petting business. By then, 25 Wild Things tigers had been transferred to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado, a 789-acre natural haven for animals rescued from roadside zoos and other abusive owners.

Many of the animals at Wild Animal Sanctuary were confiscated from roadside zoos or surrendered by individuals who got an exotic animal as a baby and then could not care for it. Pat Craig founded the sanctuary in 1980, around when zoos began the trend of using cubs to attract visitors, sparking the breeding epidemic.

Dylewsky said outlawing the exploitation of big cats in America is also key to conserving the animals in the wild. Captivity poses no benefit to conservation, Dylewsky said, because the animals can never be released into the wild after depending on humans.

“We have gotten confirmation from the State Department that when they have tried through diplomatic channels to address tiger farms, which are places where tigers are bred in parts of Asia, they’ve been told by foreign governments that the U.S. has a big cat problem,” Dylewsky said. “And we need to address what’s happening in our own country before we have credibility going to other countries asking them to address their problems.”