Bipartisan bill prohibiting private possession of big cats introduced in House, with Senate bill to follow
Today, bipartisan legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives that would prohibit breeding and private possession of captive big cats. The “Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act,” introduced by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, (D-CA), would ensure that lions, tigers and other dangerous big cats—which are kept as pets in the U.S. in alarming numbers—do not threaten public safety, diminish global big cat conservation efforts, or end up living in deplorable conditions where they can be subject to mistreatment and cruelty. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is expected to introduce a companion bill in the Senate within the next few weeks.
"No matter how many times people try to do it, wildcats such as lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs are impossible to domesticate for personal possession and require much higher living standards compared to a domestic house cat,” said Rep. McKeon. “When accidents happen and these wild cats are released into our neighborhoods, it causes panic, puts a strain on our local public safety responders and is extremely dangerous. This bill is a step forward in protecting the public and ensuring that wildcats reside in proper living conditions.
It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 20,000 big cats currently held in private ownership in the U.S., although the exact number remains a mystery. In the past 21 years, U.S. incidents involving captive big cats—tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs and lion/tiger hybrids—have resulted in the deaths of 21 humans, 246 maulings, 254 escapes, 143 big cats deaths and 131 confiscations.
"It’s a little hard to believe that there’s a crazy patchwork of regulations governing people who try to keep wild cats as pets. I know it sounds like something you just read about when there’s a tragic news story, but it’s all too real for first responders who respond to a 911 call and are surprised to come face to face with a Bengal tiger,” said Sen. Kerry. “This bill will ensure that these endangered creatures are kept in secure, professional facilities like wildlife sanctuaries rather than in small cages in someone’s backyard or apartment building.
The debate over private ownership of big cats garnered national attention last October when the owner of a backyard menagerie in Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages of his tigers, leopards, lions, wolves, bears and monkeys before committing suicide. Local police, who were neither trained nor properly equipped to deal with a situation of that magnitude, were forced to shoot and kill nearly 50 animals—38 of them big cats—before they could enter populated areas.
"The events in Ohio last year showed the tragedy that can occur when exotic animals are privately owned by individuals, with little to no oversight,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez. “Wild animals are dangerous and we clearly need better laws limiting their ownership. Exotic species should be regulated to high quality facilities with the ability to properly care for them.”
The bill would make it illegal to possess any big cat except at adequate facilities like accredited zoos and wildlife sanctuaries where they can properly cared for and sheltered, and would only allow breeding at accredited zoos, along with some research or educational institutions. Violators of the law could have their animals confiscated along with any vehicles or equipment used to aid in their activity, and could face stiff penalties including fines up to $20,000 and up to five years in jail.
In addition, any persons who currently possess big cats would be required to register those animals with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the new bill. Presently, very little information is kept by the US Department of Agriculture, state agencies or local authorities regarding how many big cats are being kept in private hands, under what conditions and where.
The proposed legislation is being supported by a number of animal welfare and wildlife conservation groups including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue, the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF), Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), the ROAR Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
"We applaud Reps. McKeon and Loretta Sanchez [and Sen. Kerry] for their foresight in bringing this important issue before Congress,” said Paul Todd, Campaigns Manager, IFAW. “Big cats are not meant to be pets, and this legislation will help to protect the public from danger while protecting these beautiful creatures from improper and inhumane care.
In 2003, Congress passed the “Captive Wildlife Safety Act,” which prohibits interstate trade of big cats, but the ban only applies to big cats for use as pets. Licensed exhibitors, which make up the majority of private owners of big cats, are exempt, even though many USDA licensees are just pet owners. Currently, two states have absolutely no regulations or permits regarding private ownership of exotic animals including big cats. Seven other states have little to no regulations of private ownership of exotic animals including big cats. Another 14 states allow big cat possession only with a state permit, and 27 states and the District of Columbia have enacted full bans on private ownership of big cats, though all of those exempt Federally-licensed exhibitors.
About IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.