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Bill to declaw ‘big cat’ breeders heading to the Senate

Netflix series 'Tiger King' focused attention on abuse of animals

Two tiger brothers relax at the Wild Animal Sanctuary on April 1, 2020 in Kennesburg, Colorado after their rescue from Joe Exotic's Greater Wynnewood Animal Park in Florida.
Two tiger brothers relax at the Wild Animal Sanctuary on April 1, 2020 in Kennesburg, Colorado after their rescue from Joe Exotic's Greater Wynnewood Animal Park in Florida. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Senate is expected to take up and approve a House-passed bill that would restrict the breeding or possession of “big cats,” including tigers, lions, jaguars and cougars, and limit ownership of the animals to zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, veterinarians and universities.

The bill, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, was approved by the House 278-134 on July 27 and its sponsors say they are “optimistic” it will be passed by the Senate, possibly after the August recess.

Congressional efforts to control ownership of big cats go back nearly two decades, when a bill labeled the Captive Wildlife Safety Act was introduced in 2003 after a tiger nearly killed an animal trainer during a Siegfried and Roy performance in Las Vegas, and one day later, a 425-pound tiger bit its owner in a New York City apartment.

That bill never saw action, but the House approved a similar measure in 2020 after national attention was focused on the issue by the Netflix series “Tiger King,” which told the story of the former Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma and its owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic. He is now serving a 21-year prison sentence for wildlife crimes and a murder-for-hire scheme. 

The 2020 bill did not see action in the Senate before the end of the 116th Congress, and a new bill was introduced in this Congress by Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

“Ultimately, this legislation is about public safety,” Quigley said in a statement after the House vote last week. “Any American can imagine the danger that exotic cats can pose. These are predators, not pets. Law enforcement has long advocated for legislation that will keep dangerous wild animals out of their communities and reduce the risk to first responders and the animals themselves.”

Dangerous encounters

The Humane Society of the United States says that in the past 30 years there have been more than 100 “dangerous and cruel incidents involving big cats kept as pets or in private menageries,” including four in Texas last year. A juvenile tiger walking through a Houston neighborhood in May 2021 was held at gunpoint by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy until its owner led it into a vehicle and sped away. The tiger was later confiscated and moved to a ranch in Murchison, Texas.

“The big cat breeding and cub petting industry creates a cycle of never-ending misery for the animals involved,” said the Humane Society’s president and CEO, Kitty Block, in a statement. 

“In an effort to control the true wild nature of these poor captive animals, breeders and exhibitors mistreat the cubs from the day they are born,” she said. “One paying customer after another handles the cubs, day in and day out, until they grow too big and dangerous. Then they have nowhere to go.”

The bill passed by the House would allow individuals currently in possession of big cats to retain them if they register each animal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, do not breed or sell the animals, and maintain distances or permanent barriers to prevent direct contact between the animals and the public. Violators could face criminal penalties of up to $20,000 in fines or up to five years imprisonment.

The Senate is expected to take up and pass the measure, according to a source familiar with the bill who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. 

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