Big Cat Act Needed to Protect Felines and Families

Friday, March 16, 2012

Washington, D.C. --The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) commends Representatives Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) for introducing the “Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act” (H.R. 4122) last week.  If passed, this legislation would prohibit the private possession of tigers, lions, and other big cats except at facilities such as accredited zoos and sanctuaries.  Those who currently possess big cats would be required to register them with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but would not be allowed to breed the animals.  Violators of the law could have their animals and equipment confiscated and could face stiff penalties, including fines up to $20,000 and up to five years in jail.

“Due to their size, strength, wild instincts, and the level of care required, big cats do not make good pets,” noted Chris Heyde, Deputy Director of Government and Legal Affairs for AWI.  Nevertheless, few state and federal laws restrict the practice, and a large number of wild cats are bred and sold as domestic pets in the U.S.—where there are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 large cats kept in private ownership.  These animals represent a threat to public safety and are often mistreated and neglected.  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 21 human deaths, 246 maulings, 253 escapes, 143 big cats deaths, and 128 confiscations.

Last year in Zanesville, Ohio, 49 wild animals—including several big cats—were killed after they were let loose from an unlicensed animal preserve.  This incident has made clear the need for federal legislation to reign in the possession and ongoing breeding of these animals.  H.R. 4122 would help end the private breeding and ownership of big cats while also addressing the increasing concern that these cats—including threatened and endangered species—are being killed to facilitate the illegal trade in their parts for domestic and overseas markets.

“No matter how many times people try to do it, wild cats such as lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs are impossible to domesticate for personal possession and require much higher living standards compared to a domestic house cat,” said Representative McKeon. “When accidents happen and these wild cats are released into our neighborhoods, it causes panic, puts a strain on our local public safety responders and is extremely dangerous. This bill is a step forward in protecting the public and ensuring that wild cats reside in proper living conditions.”

“The events in Ohio last year showed the tragedy that can occur when exotic animals are privately owned by individuals, with little to no oversight,” said Representative Sanchez. “Wild animals are dangerous and we clearly need better laws limiting their ownership. Exotic species should be regulated to high quality facilities with the ability to properly care for them.”

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. “It’s a little hard to believe that there’s a crazy patchwork of regulations governing people who try to keep wild cats as pets,” said Senator Kerry. “I know it sounds like something you just read about when there’s a tragic news story, but it’s all too real for first responders who respond to a 911 call and are surprised to come face to face with a Bengal tiger. This bill will ensure that these endangered creatures are kept in secure, professional facilities like wildlife sanctuaries rather than in small cages in someone’s backyard or apartment building.”

AWI supports the bill’s goal of prohibiting the private possession of tigers, lions, and other big cats.  We hope that Congress will move swiftly to pass this important bill.   

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Media Contact: 

Rosalyn Morrison, (202) 446-2126, Rosalyn@awionline.org