This week, the United States House of Representatives passed The Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA) with a vote of 272 to 114 (with 45 members not voting). The legislation was first introduced by Representatives Michael Quigley (D-Ill) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) in 2012 with the aim of prohibiting private individuals from keeping “big cats” such as tigers, lions, leopards, and others in captivity and banning public contact with these animals for entertainment. “After months of the public loudly and clearly calling for Congress to end private big cat ownership, I am extremely pleased that the House has now passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” Quigley said. “Big cats are wild animals that simply do not belong in private homes, backyards, or shoddy roadside zoos.”

Tiger King momentum

The BCPSA gained traction after the March release of Tiger King, a Netflix series that introduced viewers to the feud between Joe Exotic (a roadside zookeeper and animal breeder) and Carole Baskin (a sanctuary owner who worked to shut down Exotic’s zoo), along with other eccentric characters classified loosely as “big cat people,” including Kevin “Doc” Antle and Jeffrey Lowe, who all engage in exploiting wild animals for profit. 

In an effort to expose the truth behind Tiger King and gain support for BCPSA, in April, animal-rights organization The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released never-before-seen footage of the abuse big cats suffered at the hands of Exotic and other participants in the US wildlife trade. In 2011, an HSUS investigator uncovered various workers at Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo, including Exotic himself, routinely beating and punching tiger cubs in the face, dragging them by their necks and tails, and engaging in other abuse. In 2014, HSUS uncovered further abuse at Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari. 

To date, most of Tiger King’s characters have been disciplined for their role in perpetuating the cruel wildlife trade, including Exotic (who is in prison for wildlife violations and his murder-for-hire scheme against Baskin); Antle (who was slapped with multiple felony charges in October, including wildlife trafficking); Wildlife in Need roadside zoo owner Tim Stark (who was arrested by New York authorities in October); and Lowe (whose wildlife exhibitor license was suspended by the United States Department of Agriculture, leading to the closure of the GW Exotic Animal Park to the public in August). Throughout the ordeal, animal-rights groups and Baskin, along with a slew of celebrities such as Joaquin Phoenix, Diane Keaton, and Iggy Pop, urged Congress to pass BCPSA to prevent the abuse documented by Tiger King. 

The need for federal protection of big cats

Currently, five states (Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin) have virtually no laws pertaining to the possession of wild animals such as big cats, and even in places where some legal protections do exist, these laws are rarely enforced. Further, keeping big cats in captivity poses a serious public health threat that has resulted in 400 dangerous incidents in 46 states and the District of Columbia since 1990, including 24 deaths (five of which were children). “Thirty-five states now prohibit keeping big cats as pets,” HSUS CEO Kitty Block and Sara Admunsen, President of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said in a joint statement. “But to wipe this problem out for good, we need strong federal laws that will prevent unscrupulous people from forcing wild animals to spend their entire lives in abject misery while creating a public safety nightmare.”

THE BCPSA is now moving on to the Senate for voting.