Here in Washington, T4T continually works to support important legislation that benefits the conservation of tigers in the wild, and ensures responsible and humane care of captive tigers that call the United States home. We are excited to announce that the Big Cat Public Safety Act (HR 3546) has been introduced into Congress. If passed, this bill will effectively end the private ownership and breeding of big cats in the U.S., with some exceptions that will be discussed later. The private ownership of big cats in the U.S. is a complex issue, and it is necessary to gain some background information on the controversies surrounding the private ownership of big cats in the U.S. to understand why this bill is even necessary in the first place.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), there are approximately 10,000 big cats in private hands in the U.S.; 5,000 of these big cats are tigers. This private ownership is a public safety issue, a conservation issue, and an animal welfare issue.
First and foremost, privately owned big cats pose a danger to their owners. These animals are NOT domesticated, and even if raised from a cub, they will grow into a several hundred pound wild animal. When an animal like a tiger escapes from their enclosures they endanger the public, and police are often the first responders responsible for subduing the animal. Keeping the public safe from escaped wild tigers is not a part of standard police training, and first responders put themselves at great personal risk to keep the public safe. Unfortunately, this does not always end well – for both the animals and the people.
As we all (hopefully) know by now, there are only around 3,200 tigers remaining in scattered populations in the wild. As previously mentioned, there are an estimated 5,000 tigers in the U.S. It does not take an experienced conservation biologist to see the problem with these two figures. AZA accredited zoos account for only 5% of the domestic captive tiger population; the rest are found in private hands. AZA zoos maintain captive populations of Amur, Malayan, and Sumatran tigers that are strictly managed to ensure healthy genetic diversity, proper animal care, and effective safety regulations for zoo employees.
Only AZA zoos maintain a genetically diverse captive population of tigers that can contribute to global conservation efforts. The other 95% of privately owned tigers can never contribute to global conservation and are known as “generic tigers” because their genetic pedigree is unknown.
Our domestic tiger population also weakens any argument the United States may have to convince China to end its horrendous tiger farming program (click here for more information on tiger farming). How can the United States call on China to end tiger farming when we cannot even control our own captive tiger population?
Many owners have good intentions when initially purchasing an animal like a tiger for a pet, but find out only after it is too late that they do not have the capacity to properly care for the animal. These cats require large, strong enclosures that can be expensive to construct and maintain. Veterinary bills are very high and food cost is enormous – a captive tiger requires around 25 pounds of food each day resulting in an average of $10,000 spent on food alone each year. When these costs become too great, the lack of proper care causes the animal to suffer.
Even when owners realize they are in over their heads, it can be difficult to find a sanctuary to take in their animal. Most good sanctuaries (“good” in this instance refers to a sanctuary that does not purchase, sell, breed, or allow public contact with their animals) are currently at or exceeding their capacity.
Exotic Animal Exhibitors
An exotic animal exhibitor is a business owner that profits from the exploitation of exotic animals for entertainment purposes. This can be anything from a “roadside zoo” (unaccredited by the AZA) to a facility where the public can pay to physically interact with animals like tigers. This interaction can include posing for pictures, cub petting, or even swimming with tiger cubs.
Cub petting and other physical contact with tiger cubs places unnecessary stress on these animals. There is a current Unite States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule preventing physical contact with cubs younger than eight weeks old because their immune systems are not fully developed, and greater than twelve weeks old because they are considered big enough to be dangerous. This results in a four-week window that allows exhibitors to engage in cub petting activities. To keep up with the demand for cubs for this industry, unregulated breeding of tigers contributes to the already enormous tiger population in the U.S., and the fate of tigers that have grown too old for the cub petting industry is largely unknown. It is important to note that participating in cub petting or any other related activity does not support legitimate tiger conservation efforts.
If you’re still reading at this point, you have probably begun to realize how complex and controversial the domestic exotic big cat issue is. Well, it’s about to get even more complicated.
There is currently no federal law that regulates the ownership of exotic big cats in the U.S. Instead, there exists a patchwork of state laws that vary greatly in their severity. Some states have total bans on private ownership, while others have no laws at all. Even in states with bans, it is possible for citizens to own an exotic big cat by obtaining a USDA exhibitor license. Unfortunately, the USDA is understaffed and unable to check up on these permit holders to ensure they are a) actually legitimate exhibitors and b) complying with USDA regulations.
Big Cat Public Safety Act
This is where the newly introduced Big Cat Public Safety Protection Act (HR 3546) comes into play. If enacted, this bill will effectively end the private ownership and breeding of exotic big cats. The species covered in this bill include: tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and cougars. Those who currently own big cats will not be forced to give up their animals, but they will be required to register them with the USDA. It will be illegal to breed or acquire new animals.
Certain parties will be exempt from these new regulations, including AZA accredited zoos, state universities, accredited sanctuaries that do not sell, breed, or allow public contact with their animals, and certain circuses.
A federal law is critical to address the exotic big cat crisis in the U.S. The Big Cat Public Safety Protection Act will keep the public safe, improve the effectiveness of legitimate conservation efforts, and ensure proper care of domestic tigers in the United States.
To learn more about this bill and take action, check out IFAW’s website. Additionally, you can browse through the content on the Coalition website to get more information on this bill and other legislation we support.