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House of Representatives
H.R. 1818, introduced by Reps. Jeff Denham (R-CA), Walter Jones (R-NC), and Niki Tsongas (D-MA), is a commonsense and urgently-needed solution to the problem of big cats kept in unsafe and abusive circumstances. Wild animals kept in basements, cement pits, or tethered in backyards not only suffer immensely, but also pose a serious risk to the safety of the surrounding community.
The bill amends the Captive Wildlife Safety Act to prohibit breeding and future possession of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or any hybrid of these species in the exotic pet trade. It is narrowly focused on privately-owned animals, and includes exemptions for zoos that meet certain standards of care and safety, sanctuaries, and universities. Current owners are grandfathered in and simply required to register their animals with the government. This bill also restricts direct contact between the public and big cats.
An estimated 10,000-20,000 big cats are currently owned as pets or maintained in ill-equipped roadside zoos around the US. Exact numbers are a mystery—nobody knows exactly how many dangerous big cats are being kept in private hands, or where they are.
This is a problem that requires a federal solution. With some states banning private ownership of big cats, and other states imposing partial to no restrictions whatsoever, this regulatory patchwork is failing to protect public safety and animal welfare.
Public Safety Implications
Since 1990, there have been at least 365 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats in 46 states. Big cats have killed 19 adults and four children while numerous other people have been mauled—with injuries that included loss of limbs. Big cats pose a serious threat to public safety as well as to first responders who must risk their lives when these animals escape or attack.
Big cats cannot be domesticated. 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.
Animal Welfare Implications
Big cats are wild animals who suffer when people attempt to keep them as backyard pets. By the time they are fully grown, they are too difficult for their private owners to manage. Consequently, the animals are frequently abused 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. This is done solely for cosmetic reasons and serves no conservation goals.
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.
Private ownership and breeding of big cats does not contribute to conservation goals. Privately owned big cats from the US have never successfully been released into the wild; consequently, confiscated big cats must be placed in other captive environments.
Private possession and breeding of big cats contributes to illegal international wildlife trafficking. Illegal trade in big cat parts like 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 their body parts in the black market trade.