Written by Shannon Armstrong
The interest in the private ownership of big cats has skyrocketed with the release of the Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (“Tiger King”) on March 20, 2020. The documentary covers “[a] zoo owner [who] spirals out of control amid a cast of eccentric characters in [a] true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.” The documentary series follows the story of Joe Exotic, the owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a private zoo, and other individuals in the big cat industry, such as Carole Baskin. While every second of the documentary series has another twist and turn that leaves the audience shocked or confused, there is a central question of whether these individuals or individuals in general, should be allowed to own big cats.
The Tiger King documentary begins with a shocking statistic: “There are more captive tigers in the U.S. today then there are in the wild throughout the world.” There are around 5,000 tigers in captivity in the United States, but there are only about 3,500 tigers in the wild. Throughout the documentary, there are mentions of allegations of abuse and mistreatment of these big cats. However, the conversations about animal abuse mostly arise when the individuals in the big cat industry accuse each other of abuse and mistreatment. Further, as the documentary tells the stories of these individuals in the big cat industry, it is hard not to get wrapped up in the drama and craziness of their personal lives and forget about the animals behind the scenes, and what we should be doing to protect them.
Currently, there is no federal law that prevents private individuals from owning big cats as pets. This means it has been left to the states to regulate the private possession of these animals. As of March 2019, twenty-eight states ban the private ownership of big cats, six states ban the private possession of exotic big cats but allow ownership of some native felines, twelve states allow the private possession of big cats with a permit, and four states have no laws banning the private possession of big cats. With these different laws in place and the range of enforcement across the country, it makes it difficult to investigate claims of animal abuse and to take measures to protect big cats.
In response to this issue, legislators introduced The Big Cat Public Safety Act (the Act) in the House of Representatives on February 26, 2019. The Act “revises requirements governing the trade of big cats . . . [s]pecifically, it revises restrictions on the possession and exhibition of big cats.” While the Act would prevent the private ownership of big cats for the general public, it would continue to allow some individuals and organizations to own big cats. These include entities that have an animal exhibition license (i.e. zoos, amusement parks, sanctuaries) and do not allow individuals to come into contact with the wildlife, state colleges and universities, and wildlife sanctuaries. Further, this Act grandfathers in individuals who already own big cats, contingent upon satisfying certain requirements. These requirements are that they do not “breed, acquire, or sell” big cats after the enactment of the Act, they do not allow the public to touch the big cats, and they register their animals with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Act would be a big step towards preventing the private ownership of big cats, however, it does not address all of the current problems surrounding the possession of these wild animals. This is because the Act allows all individuals who currently own big cats to be grandfathered in, meaning they can maintain ownership over the big cats they currently own. This means that Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin, along with many other individuals featured in Tiger King, would be allowed to continue to possess their big cats. However, the Act would have some effects on how the individuals in Tiger King operate their business. Also, while Joe Exotic was arrested for charges both related and unrelated to his possession of big cats, his animal park is still in operation meaning the Act would affect how the business is operated.
The most significant change the Act makes is that it prevents these individuals from continuing to “breed, acquire, or sell” these animals. Further, there are other small changes these individuals may be required to make, such as no longer allowing the public to directly interact with their big cats, such as through cub petting or photographs, which the documentary suggests was a big money maker for Joe Exotic. However, in the end, it still would not prevent these individuals from owning, exhibiting, and profiting off of these animals.
While this Act does not fix every problem, it is a big step towards protecting big cats held in captivity in the United States and protecting public safety. It would also limit the exotic animal trade in the United States, which fuels the breeding of big cats and places them with individuals who are held to no standards to protect the cats or the public. The Act will prevent the continual breeding and sale of big cats in the United States, and hopefully, one day, big cats will no longer be privately owned in the United States.
Alex Hannaford, The tiger next door: America’s backyard big cats, The Guardian (Nov. 10, 2019).
Big Cat Public Safety Act, Animal Welfare Institute (2020).
Current State Big Cat Laws, Turpintine Creek Wildlife Refuge (Mar. 2019).
H.R. 1380, 116th Cong. (2020).
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix Mar. 20, 2020).
Photo courtesy of Forbes.