‘Tiger King’-Style Big Cat Ownership Ban Faces House Vote (1)

  • Bill would stop people from keeping tigers, lions as pets
  • Some Republicans oppose measure in fight over jurisdiction

(Adds Rep. Case quote in 10th paragraph. A previous version corrected Letterman’s title.)

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Legislation protecting big cats from private ownership and public interaction — a topic generating attention after Netflix Inc.‘s Tiger King crime documentary series — heads to the House floor on Thursday.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263) would prohibit tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, or cougars from being kept or bred as pets. The bill would also prohibit public contact with big cats, seen in practices like cub petting.

The bill would amend the Lacey Act, a 1981 law that penalizes illegal trafficking of wildlife under the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tiger King illustrated the private ownership and trade of big cats in the US, through Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage and his management of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. Joe Exotic is in federal prison for violating the Lacey Act, as well as the Endangered Species Act, and hiring someone to murder his nemesis on the show, Carole Baskin.

BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 263, Big Cats Prohibition

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
One of the 39 tigers rescued in 2017 from Joe Exotic’s G.W. Exotic Animal Park yawns while relaxing at the Wild Animal Sanctuary on April 5, 2020 in Keenesburg, Colo. The sanctuary cares for some 550 animals on two expansive reserves in the state.

Baskin — founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue — has lobbied for the bill on Capitol Hill. Big Cat Rescue worked with other animal organizations, such Animal Wellness Action, which sent a letter to the House, the organization said in an email.

The House passed the bill in the last Congress, however the measure never made it to the Senate floor.

Timing seemed to be the biggest problem with the bill last time, said Tracie Letterman, vice president of federal affairs for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, another group supporting the bill.

“Since we’re now at the end of July, we’re really hoping that the Senate will be able to pick it up and get it passed,” Letterman said.

Violators of the House measure could face fines of as much as $20,000, as many as five years in jail, or both. Exemptions would be made for facilities with animal exhibitor licenses from the Department of Agriculture. Facilities could keep animals they owned prior to the measure’s enactment if they register with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There are somewhere around 20,000 big cats in private ownership throughout our country,” Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), one of the bill’s backers, said during House Rules Committee consideration of the measure. He said the exact number is unknown because owners aren’t currently required to register their animals.

‘Venue Shopping’

Some House Republicans oppose the legislation because of the bill’s agency jurisdiction.

Ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) said while he supports what the bill is aiming to do, enforcement responsibility should be assigned to the Agriculture Department, not the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service. He was told “the bill’s outside proponents” wanted to work with the USFWS, rather than USDA, he said during House Rules Committee debate.

“This is a classic taste of congressional venue shopping,” Westerman said. “Creating two regulatory frameworks at two different departments — the Department of Interior and USDA — overlaid with existing state regulation, will only create confusion and duplication.”

He argued the bill should amend the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and already regulates the exhibition of big cats.

Case countered that the USFWS already regulates big cat transportation and mistreatment under the Lacey Act, so it’s best positioned to take on the bill’s enforcement,

“While the USDA does provide basic requirements for preventing cruelty to exhibit animals, Fish and Wildlife is the appropriate agency to provide stringent standards to ensure that threatened and endangered species are managed to actively promote conservation, regardless of whether the animals are exhibited to the public,” Case said.

Just because APHIS handles big cats in its work, doesn’t mean the bill must fall under USDA, Letterman said in an interview.

“Salmon is regulated by Fish and Wildlife when it’s in rivers, by NOAA when it’s in the ocean, and then by FDA when its food,” Letterman said. “It’s not unusual for agencies to regulate different aspects of an industry.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mia McCarthy at mmccarthy@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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