Big Cat Public Safety Act

Photo from Flickr by Andrey


The Big Cat Public Safety Act passed the House by a vote of 272-114 on December 3, 2020. It awaits consideration by the Senate.

What the Bill Does

The Big Cat Public Safety Act is an urgently needed solution to the problem of big cats kept as pets in unsafe and abusive circumstances. Wild animals imprisoned in basements or backyards not only suffer immensely, but also pose a serious risk to the safety of the surrounding community.

The bill would amend the Captive Wildlife Safety Act to prohibit the possession of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or any hybrid of these species by individuals who are not licensed by the US Department of Agriculture. It is narrowly focused on privately owned animals and includes exemptions for sanctuaries, universities, and zoos. Current owners are grandfathered in and are simply required to register their animals with the government to ensure that first responders and animal control officers are aware of the presence of such animals in their communities. This bill also restricts direct contact between the public and big cats.


It is estimated that thousands of big cats are currently kept in captivity around the United States. Exact numbers are a mystery—nobody knows exactly how many dangerous big cats are being kept in private hands, or where they are.

Unscrupulous facilities profit from cub petting or photo opportunities, which fuels a rampant and vicious cycle of breeding and dumping cubs once they are 12 weeks old. Having outgrown their usefulness, these cubs are funneled into the exotic pet trade, sold to another disreputable exhibitor, or end up in the black market trade for wildlife parts.

This is a problem that requires a federal solution. The current regulatory patchwork is failing to protect public safety and animal welfare—with some states banning private ownership of big cats and other states imposing partial or no restrictions on such ownership.

Public Safety Implications

Big cats are wild animals. Unlike companion animals who have been domesticated over centuries, big cats always retain their natural instinct to hunt and attack, no matter how they are raised. Since 1990, there have been nearly 380 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Big cats took the lives of five children and caused serious injuries to others, including lost limbs and other traumatic injuries. Captive big cats also killed 20 adults and mauled scores of others.

Among the most dramatic examples was an October 2011 incident in Zanesville, Ohio, in which a private exotic animal owner released dozens of big cats near a community, requiring law enforcement to risk their own lives and kill the cats for the sake of public safety.

Animal Welfare Implications

Big cats suffer when people attempt to keep them as backyard pets. By the time they are fully grown, they become too difficult for their private owners to manage. Consequently, the animals are frequently neglected and left to spend their entire lives in barren cages with barely enough room to move.

Privately bred big cats can suffer from deformities due to breeding for certain physical traits. A prime example is the purposeful breeding for white tigers—which are not a distinct subspecies of tiger but merely an aberrant color variation. Captive white tigers are regularly inbred, and this has led to serious congenital defects including cleft palates, cataracts, club feet, and near-crippling hip dysplasia.

Direct contact between the public and big cat cubs fuels the demand for big cats as pets and presents animal welfare concerns. Roadside zoos often separate mother cats from their cubs so they can use the cubs for public contact events such as pettings and photo ops. This can lead to physical and psychological harm, as it interrupts the mother-cub bonding process and taxes cubs’ underdeveloped immune systems. The public may also be bitten or scratched, despite the cubs’ small size.

Conservation Implications

Private ownership of big cats does not contribute to conservation goals. Privately owned big cats from the United States have never successfully been released into the wild; consequently, big cats who have been confiscated must be placed in other captive environments.

Ending the rampant exotic pet trade in big cats would lend the United States greater credibility in conservation efforts abroad. State Department efforts to end cruel “tiger farming” are currently hamstrung by the existence of a big cat crisis in our own backyards.

Private possession and rampant breeding of big cats may also contribute to illegal international wildlife trafficking. Illegal trade in big cat parts such as skins and bones is big business, and there is currently no way to know how many US-born big cats are exploited and killed for the black market trade.

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