A bill to restrict private ownership of big cats like lions, tigers and leopards as pets and for breeding passed the House on Thursday, marking a victory for animal welfare activists and Carole Baskin of the “Tiger King” Netflix show.
The House passed the bill 278-134, with all votes against being Republican and 63 Republicans joining with Democrats to vote in favor.
It now heads to the Senate, where bill advocates believe it has a shot of passing by unanimous consent. The White House on Tuesday issued a formal statement of support for the bill, indicating that President Biden will sign it into law if it comes to his desk. The bill previously passed the House in the last Congress in December 2020, when there was little time for the Senate to consider it.
The bill was supported not only by animal welfare groups, but also by a number of law enforcement organizations like the National Sheriff’s Association.
Big cats kept as pets have frequently been seen on the loose, posing a danger to the public. Last year, a tiger in Houston, Texas, reportedly escaped its owners’ property after climbing over a fence. Police have little training or skill on how to deal with the wild animals on the loose, or if confronted with one while conducting other activities.
In a 2011 incident in Zanesville, Ohio, a man set free around 50 exotic animals from his collection – including lions, tigers, bears and a baboon – shortly before killing himself. Police, fearing for public safety, shot and killed dozens of the animals.
“I’ve experienced the worst-case scenario first-hand, and it is a gut-wrenching experience to think about tigers, lions, and other big cats on the prowl in such close proximity to our homes and our schools,” Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz, of the Zanesville area, said in a statement.
Under the bill led by Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), possession of the big cats and cross-breeds would be limited to wildlife sanctuaries, state universities and certified zoos, and ban breeding the cats except by a certified zoo or animal exhibitor. Those on display must be kept at least 15 feet away from the public or build a permanent barrier to prevent contact.
Current owners of big cats now who would be otherwise restricted will be able to keep them, as long as they do not breed, acquire or sell any prohibited wildlife species; do not allow direct contact between cats and the public; and register the cat with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That would gradually phase out private ownership of the animals.
The bill would take aim at the “cub-petting” industry assailed by animal welfare activists in which members of the public pay to play or take photos with tiger cubs or other big cats.
Many advocates for the bill, including the Humane Society of the United States, have credited the popularity of the 2020 “Tiger King” series with bringing public attention to private ownership of big cats in the U.S. and propelled the bill forward. A version of the legislation was first introduced a decade ago.
“‘Tiger King’ has clearly put this on the radar for everyone,” animal welfare lobbyist Marty Irby, who is also executive director of Animal Wellness Action, told The Hill earlier this week. “If we had not seen COVID and ‘Tiger King’ come out at the same time when COVID first hit and be such an overwhelming presence around the globe, really not even just the U.S., then we probably would not be where we are today.”
Baskin, the founder and CEO of Florida rescue facility Big Cat Rescue, has met with dozens of lawmakers and offices about the bill and has frequently been spotted on Capitol Hill advocating for the bill.
“It is an enormous expense to care for these animals and reckless behavior foists a massive long-term financial liability on animal sanctuaries,” Baskin said in a statement. “None of these private big cat owners holds onto the animals for very long, and that means they get turned over to groups like Big Cat Rescue that have to take in these traumatized, often very unhealthy animals.”
Though the bill had broad Republican support, some House Republicans voiced opposition to the bill.
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, argued that the bill would duplicate federal processes and proposed giving the Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the cats rather than the Department of the Interior.
Several other Republicans argued that the House should be spending time addressing other topics like inflation or the Southern border, and that regulation of private big cat ownership should be left to the states.
Irby called the complaints about time spent on the issue “ridiculous in light of the fact that everyone had plenty of time to practice and dedicate resources to the Congressional baseball game this week, which really does little to nothing to help the American people.”