The Big Cat Public Safety Act, inspired by Tiger King, may become law

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Congress could make exotic animal parks like those seen in ‘Tiger King’ a thing of the past

New legislation to protect big cats leapt through the House and could potentially claw its way past the Senate. The Big Cat Public Safety Act, which passed the House on July 29, restricts who can own tigers, cheetahs, jaguars and other wild animals living in the U.S., as well as sets regulations on how they can be handled.

And while the bipartisan-backed bill (led in the House by Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.) doesn’t affect those who already have a pretty (large) kitty in their apartment or house, it does add more restrictions to current laws.

Presently, the public is not allowed to import, export, purchase, sell or transport big cats. Here’s how the new law goes further:

  • Restricts ownership of big cats to wildlife sanctuaries, state universities and certified zoos.
  • Prohibits breeding big cats except for wildlife sanctuaries, veterinarians, colleges and universities, zoos, exhibitions and other entities that meet certain requirements.
  • Keeps big cats and the public far apart: Facilities that have authorization to display the animals are required to contain them at least 15 feet away from the public or erect a barrier and prevent direct public contact with big cats with limited exceptions.
  • Requires current big cat owners to register them.

And one more thing: Remember scenes from “Tiger King”? People cuddling and snuggling with all those adorable cubs — and oh, the selfie possibilities! Cuddling would no longer be allowed under the new legislation because it bans direct contact. Experts have said not only can it be dangerous to humans, but it also can be harmful to animals.

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“Often people who patronize those exhibits are misled,” Carson Barylak, campaigns manager at global nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told Grid. “They’re told that they’re supporting conservation. In reality, those cubs are torn away from their mothers shortly after they’re born. Also, the demand for that kind of experience drives the speed breeding of those animals, because they don’t stay small for very long.”

Four events in which animals and people have been harmed

More tigers live in captivity in backyards, truck stops and roadside zoos in the U.S. than remain in the wild, the New York Times reported, citing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This has led to some incidents that have harmed both the big cats and the public. Although, we don’t know how often because the possession of tigers and other big cats is so poorly regulated in the U.S., Barylak said. They can’t even tell exactly how many are in private hands.

  • Last year, federal authorities seized a Noah’s Ark-amount of animals from an Oklahoma animal park featured in a “Tiger King” episode. In all, 68 lions, tigers, lion-tiger hybrids and a jaguar were taken from Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe’s Tiger King Park in Thackerville, Oklahoma, and the couple was accused of inhumane treatment and improper handling of animals.
  • One of the most infamous cases of animal neglect happened in 2011, when the Ohio owner of an exotic animal farm set his tigers, lions, bears and other beasts free before taking his own life. Barylak said the incident is often called the “Zanesville massacre,” because authorities killed nearly 50 animals, producing “heartbreaking” images of the animals’ bodies. It also showed the burden on law enforcement who don’t normally receive training to handle a 300 to 400 pound animal.
  • In 2003, a Bengal tiger named Ming was found in a public housing project, brought in by apartment owner Antoine Yates. At some point, the animal charged at a stray cat that Yates also brought into the dwelling. When Yates went to the emergency room to get medical treatment for his wound, he told staff he received his injury from a pit bull. They didn’t buy it, and officers were sent to the apartment where they found the tiger. In 2000, a 3-year-old in Texas was disfigured when the boy reached into a pet Bengal tiger’s cage at his uncle’s residence. The uncle was cited for keeping a dangerous animal without a permit, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Will the bill pass the Senate?

Animal welfare lobbyist Marty Irby, who is also the executive director of Animal Wellness Action, added, “We have not heard of any senator on either side of the aisle that has opposed this legislation so far.”

This isn’t the first time big cat legislation has passed in the House on its way to the Senate. In December 2020, a similar bill made it through but stalled in the Senate — not even coming up for a vote.

And not everyone is sold on the bill. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement to Grid that the law would “supersede state law and create regulatory confusion.”

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“This bill ignores the existing regulatory framework and creates an additional regulatory system,” Westerman wrote, calling the bill an “overreaching, duplicative and precedent-setting proposal that will serve as a blueprint for future legislation and regulations on other species.”

How “Tiger King” may have helped the bill pass

The “Tiger King” series increased the odds of the legislation’s success, the Human Society said in a recent blog post. Why? It’s all due to the show’s “disreputable cast of characters,” that the Humane Society says represented “Exhibit A for why we need a swift end to the industry.”

But Barylak said such big cat laws had been in development before the series hit streaming. She does, however, credit the show with teaching people about the dangers of big cat ownership.

“Because people were so enthusiastic for a time, it gave [IFAW] opportunities to host briefings and raise awareness,” she said.

The legislation is actually discussed in “Tiger King” and supported by Carole Baskin, star of the series and owner of Big Cat Rescue. She told Grid she was overwhelmed with joy when President Joe Biden spoke up in favor of the legislation.

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“I’ve been promoting laws to protect animals from abuse for 25 years and the Big Cat Public Safety Act for 24 of them. Never in all of the animal bills I’ve been involved in have I seen a president proactively ask Congress to get it done!” Baskin told Grid.

Baskin, who said she cried when she read the president’s statement to her staff, said she is “sure that the House will pass H.R. 263 Friday and confident that the Senate will do so shortly thereafter.”

Will the new rules make a difference?

Those who champion animal rights believe the bill will cause reverberations throughout the entire big cat ownership industry.

“It’s important when it comes to animal welfare, of course, but also with respect to conservation of these animals, wild counterparts and community safety,” Barylak said. “My hope is that it will greatly reduce the suffering of big cats and perhaps inspire additional change when it comes to other captive wildlife.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

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Congress