The Netflix reality-doc series Tiger King captured the eyes of millions during the early months of COVID quarantine. Audiences were enthralled with the dramatics of Joe Exotic and his rival on the show, Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida.
While the series received a fair amount of criticism — The Atlantic called it an “ethical train wreck” — it did bring the issue of big cat abuse to the public’s attention, and action is being taken to protect the predators.
In early December, the House of Representatives passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act by a vote of 272-114. CBS News reported that the bill is an expansion of the Lacey Act Amendments that were put in place nearly 40 years ago to “further the conservation of certain wildlife species.” Most importantly, it limits who can legally buy, sell, breed, or transport cats like lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, or hybrids of other wild cats.
This means that the lunatic neighbor of yours who wants to be the next Joe Exotic and buy a tiger cub will — thankfully — have their (very dangerous) dreams crushed. Only wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, veterinary schools, or other facilities with an approved license from the Department of Agriculture will be allowed to legally possess such animals.
The shortcoming of the Big Cat Public Safety Act is that those individuals who already own such cats will be allowed to keep their animals. This may seem counterproductive, but with roughly 10,000 big cats in the U.S., it would be nearly impossible to confiscate all of those animals and relocate them to licensed sanctuaries. Individuals who break the law would be subject to a $20,000 fine and five years of imprisonment.
The bill was sponsored by Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley who said “500-pound carnivores pose a very real threat.” Quigley went on to make his case, pointing out that “Lions and tigers do not belong in urban apartments or in cages in suburban backyards. Private citizens simply do not have the resources to care for dangerous animals that are meant to roam over hundreds of square miles.”
Big cat abuse in the United States is all too common
According to the Humane Society of the United States, abuse and neglect of big cats in captivity is a common occurrence, as is the breeding of the animals for a quick buck.
“There are many more exhibitors around the country, including some we have investigated, who recklessly breed these animals and/or use baby tigers and lions for the public to feed, pet, play with, and take photos with,” read a joint statement by Humane Society CEO Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. Unfortunately, this sort of animal abuse continues to be regularly advertised as a tourist attraction in countries such as Thailand, where the animals are drugged to make them passive for photo opportunities.
Block and Amundson pointed out the dangers of bringing big cats into captivity. “Since 1990, more than 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have occurred” in the United States, they said. It was only a few months ago that a man in Florida nearly had his scalp ripped off after paying $150 to a shady breeder for a close encounter with a leopard. Even when these big cats are being properly cared for in a licensed sanctuary, accidents happen.
The same day the Big Cat Public Safety Act was passed, a handler at Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue nearly lost an arm while feeding a tiger. The handler had put her arm in the cage to clip a door when disaster struck. “Kimba [the tiger ] grabbed her arm and nearly tore it off at the shoulder,” a statement from the rescue said.
The bill of course still has to pass a vote by the Senate and be signed into law by the president, but in a year that had so many lows, it’s encouraging to see a win for animals who desperately need protection.
Photos via Wikipedia Commons, PxHere