WASHINGTON—The U.S. House of Representatives just passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263) by a vote of 278 to 134. The bill would prohibit keeping tigers, lions and other big cat species as pets, and ban direct public contact like cub petting. Sponsored and championed by Rep. Michael Quigley, D-Ill., and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa, the bill now moves to the Senate.
Big cat ownership is an epidemic in the U.S. Untold numbers of captive big cats live in shoddy roadside zoos or as pets living in homes. More often than not, these large, dangerous, wide-roaming apex predators are kept in small, barren cages where they can barely turn around. They are improperly fed, are not provided with appropriate veterinary care, and have no means to express their complex emotional and behavioral needs. Cubs are ripped away from their mothers to be offered to paying customers for feeding and petting sessions and for photo ops. Keeping big cats in these settings is not only inhumane but is also a serious public safety issue.
Since 1992, there have been at least 100 dangerous and cruel incidents involving big cats kept as pets or in private menageries. Among them, a juvenile tiger wandered in a Houston neighborhood in 2021 and an escaped pet cougar was found lounging in a driveway in Parkland, Florida, in 2019. In 2013, a 400-pound pet lion escaped in Fairfield Beach, Ohio. In 2009, a 330-pound tiger was discovered in a backyard in Ingram, Texas. In 2008, a leopard approached a woman in her yard in Neosho, Missouri. In 2005, a tiger roamed loose for days before being shot and killed in Simi Valley, California.
This crisis is chiefly the result of public contact activities in substandard facilities, such as those featured in the series “Tiger King” and also shown in the Humane Society of the United States’ undercover investigations focusing on Joseph Maldonado-Passage, or “Joe Exotic” and others.
Earlier this month, Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue spoke to hundreds of advocates at a conference hosted by the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, urging them to contact their members of Congress to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act. As one of the keynote speakers, she expressed to animal advocates that she had a sincere hope this year would be the year that we would get this bill done. Over 100 of those advocates joined the Humane Society Legislative Fund to lobby their own members of Congress the following week, urging them to support passing this bill.
Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said: “The big cat breeding and cub petting industry creates a cycle of never-ending misery for the animals involved. In an effort to control the true wild nature of these poor captive animals, breeders and exhibitors mistreat the cubs from the day they are born. One paying customer after another handles the cubs, day in and day out, until they grow too big and dangerous. Then they have nowhere to go. Sometimes they are sold to roadside zoos, where they pace the confines of their cages, or they end up in basements or backyards as ‘pets.’ Others simply disappear. ‘Tiger King’ showed just a glimpse of why we need a swift end to the big cat breeding and cub petting industry in the U.S. There are countless Joe Exotics out there. As long as cub petting remains legal, nothing will prevent the next generation of profiteering con artists from casting vulnerable big cats to an uncertain fate.”
Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said: “House passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, H.R. 263, is a giant step toward addressing a problem that has been festering for years—America’s surplus of captive tigers and other big cats. It’s the product of people like those in the series ‘Tiger King,’ who breed big cats to make money, not to provide any conservation value. Although most of the scofflaw breeders in ‘Tiger King’ have been held to account, as long as cub petting remains legal, nothing will prevent Joe Exotic wannabes from relentlessly exploiting, mistreating and dumping big cat cubs. With well over half of the House cosponsoring this bill, Congress should pass it without delay.”
Bexar County Sherriff Javier Salazar, who worked with the HSUS to bring Elsa the cub in San Antonio to the HSUS sanctuary Black Beauty Ranch, said: “As we learned from experience in Bexar County, privately owned big cats pose a serious and significant threat to our communities. Enforcement officers are not provided the training or resources to respond to these extremely high-risk, preventable incidents when owners inevitably fail to control their dangerous animals. The Big Cat Public Safety Act will provide a critical tool for solving this problem and we urge legislators to vote yes.”
Noelle Almrud, senior director of Black Beauty Ranch, said: “Three of the tigers living at our sanctuary Black Beauty Ranch—Loki, Elsa and India—were rescued from the cruel and dangerous exotic pet trade and will never have to be pulled on a leash or confined in a cage or someone’s living room ever again. To be clear, tigers never make acceptable pets under any circumstances. They are wild animals and can inflict serious, if not deadly, injury to people who attempt to ‘tame’ them. It is critical that the Big Cat Public Safety Act is passed so that so that the overbreeding and horrific treatment of captive exotic cats in the United States is finally over.”
Sheriff Matt Lutz of the Muskingum County Sheriff's Office, where dozens of exotic animals were shot and killed after their owner freed them from enclosures in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011, said: “The tragedy in Zanesville highlighted the serious threat posed to our communities when private individuals are allowed to keep big cats in their backyards. Law enforcement does not receive training about how to handle these dangerous incidents, yet are the ones called to respond when disaster strikes. The Big Cat Public Safety Act will help solve this national crisis, and we urge Congress to pass this bill to help protect law enforcement and the citizens we serve.”
“Ultimately, this legislation is about public safety. Any American can imagine the danger that exotic cats can pose. These are predators, not pets. Law enforcement has long advocated for legislation that will keep dangerous wild animals out of their communities and reduce the risk to first responders and the animals themselves,” said Rep. Michael Quigley, D-Ill. “I have been proud to work alongside law enforcement groups and animal organizations to ensure this bill will make both neighborhoods and animals safer. For too long, lax laws have allowed private citizens to own big cats. The animals subject to these grotesque conditions deserve better. I hope my colleagues in the Senate will swiftly take up this legislation so we can make a difference for communities across the country and save these animals from a life of confinement and restriction.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said: "As a member of the bipartisan Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, I am committed to ensuring our government is doing its part to promote animal welfare. For too long, big cats have been mistreated, exploited, and abused in private roadside zoos. Our Big Cat Public Safety Act will prohibit the unlicensed, private possession of big cats and restrict their direct contact with the public, and I am proud to again join Congressman Quigley in championing this bipartisan bill."