6 questions about the U.S. Big Cats and the Public Safety Protection Act

We recently asked our Washington D.C. based Campaigns Manager, Paul Todd, six questions about issues surrounding the introduction of H.R. 4122, the Big Cats and the Public Safety Protection Act. Paul kindly provides answers below. - ED

1. What will happen to the big cats currently in private possession if ownership becomes illegal? Will they be euthanized?

No. Under the new bill, H.R. 4122any one who currently possesses tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and lion/tiger hybrids would be required to register their animals with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Presently, very little information is kept by the USDA, state agencies or local authorities regarding how many big cats are being kept in private hands, under what conditions and where. Providing they register their big cats, people who already own these animals will be allowed to keep them. However, they will not be allowed to breed or acquire new animals.

2. Will this cost taxpayer’s money?

No, and it could save taxpayer dollars in the long run. As the big cats that are currently in private possession die off, the population would decline drastically, eventually leaving them in just accredited zoos and lifetime sanctuaries, which would ease the regulatory burden on USDA officials and ultimately cost taxpayers less. 

3. Why is the federal government getting involved? Isn’t this a state, local or private issue?

The current regulatory patchwork of federal and state regulations for dangerous captive big cats is expensive and it just doesn't work. 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, which is the bulk of big cat owners and most are just licensed pet owners. In this case, a simple, nationwide standard is necessary to accomplish what many states have already tried to do: stop dangerous big cats in private possession from endangering communities.

And, it would actually reduce the complicated regulatory burden and could even save taxpayer dollars once it takes effect.

4. Can’t captive tigers breed and help replenish wild tiger populations?

No. Most captive tigers can never be released to the wild. There are at least a few reasons they cannot.

One, they are mostly genetic hybrids (not pure tiger subspecies like Bengal tigers or Siberian tigers) and would diminish the genetic vitality of wild populations.

Two, captive tigers are comfortable around humans and often do not view them as threats. That would likely lead to tiger-human conflict, putting the tiger’s survival at stake.

Three, captive tigers have not learned to hunt, a skill they acquire from their mothers in the wild. Accredited zoos are the best place to maintain the genetic purity of the species, of course, outside of the wild where the primary efforts to conserve tigers and other big cats should be focused. 

5. Does this mean we won’t be able to see tigers in zoos anymore?

No. The bill would make it illegal to possess any big cat except at adequate facilities like zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and lifetime wildlife sanctuaries that meet exacting criteria.

These are institutions where these animals can be properly cared for and sheltered. The bill also would only allow breeding at accredited zoos and some research and educational institutions.

6. The incident at Zanesville, Ohio--where 38 big cats and 11 other wild animals were released from their cages,--was a tragedy, but isn’t this bill taking things too far?

Zanesville was far from the first time that tragedies involving big cats have occurred, and unlike Zanesville, many of those incidents have resulted in human tragedies, not just animal tragedies. 

On August 18, 2005, Haley Hilderbrand, 17, of Altamont, Kansas, was attacked and killed by a 550-pound Siberian tiger restrained only by a leash during a school photo shoot.

The tiger had to be shot multiple times before it was finally killed by police. 

In the past 11 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 (16 adults and 5 children)
  • 246 maulings
  • 253 escapes
  • 143 big cats deaths
  • and 131 confiscations.

The U.S. is home to roughly 5,000 captive tigers--more than are found in the wild. 

Since 1990, captive tigers alone have killed at least 12 people in the U.S. and mauled about 75 more.

-- PT

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