The first time Tim Harrison rescued privately owned big cats was back in 1982. A public safety officer at the time, Harrison and other responders found a male lion pacing around a small enclosure, a lion cub who appeared severely ill, bears, snakes and other animals on an Ohio property.

It was rare to see privately owned big cats in the ’80s, says Harrison, who is now director of Outreach for Animals in Ohio. But in the following decade, the number of incidents increased, and Harrison began working with the Humane Society of the United States to pass legislation addressing the issue. But even as cities and states began banning big cat ownership, the fight for federal action was arduous.

In 2012, legislation banning the private possession of big cats was first introduced in Congress. Tracie Letterman, vice president of federal affairs at Humane Society Legislative Fund, notes that this initial iteration of the bill would have only prohibited private possession and breeding of big cats. In the years that followed, our legislative and wildlife teams built a coalition of partners to support legislative language that prohibited keeping tigers, lions and other big cat as pets and, crucially, banned public contact with them.

Lion cub at petting facility in South Africa
Adam Peyman

This inclusion was important, Letterman says, because the problem was larger than private ownership. Cub petting attractions bred big cats and used them for profit, charging patrons who wanted to hold and take pictures with cubs. Once the cubs grew too large, they were often dumped at roadside zoos or sold as pets, further fueling the breeding problem.

Public awareness increased over the years as animal welfare organizations, law enforcement groups and citizens advocated for the bill, arguing that it would protect humans and animals alike. In December 2022, the Big Cat Public Safety Act was finally signed into law.

When Harrison heard the news, he was stunned. Then he was filled with emotion. “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime,” he says. Months later, he still chokes up when talking about it. But emotions soon gave way to planning. “I was ecstatic. And then I knew the work was just beginning.”

Once a bill becomes law, the federal agency in charge of implementing the law drafts regulations. Legislation “gives us the core of what we’re prohibiting,” says Brianna DelDuca, a regulatory specialist at HSLF. “But the regulations are essential to actually say how this is going to happen.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an interim final rule that allowed enforcement to begin. The HSUS and HSLF provided input on what they’d like to see, such as the swift confiscation of cats and placement in sanctuaries. There is work to be done, but DelDuca says the interim regulations are strong.

The law is already having an impact: In September 2023, a Texas couple was arrested after allegedly attempting to sell a jaguar cub. Ashley Mauceri, HSUS director of law enforcement outreach and engagement, is thrilled that officers are using the law. Her team at the HSUS Law Enforcement Training Center, which trains thousands of officers each year, plans to develop trainings on the Big Cat Public Safety Act. They’ve already heard from officers interested in the topic. Some even shared that they’re aware of big cats being kept in their jurisdictions.

Times are changing, changing fast, and we should be riding that wave right now.

Tim Harrison, Outreach for Animals

On the legislative side, Sara Amundson, president of HSLF, celebrated the passage of the bill and the regulations. They “put an end to a warped industry with no socially redeeming purpose,” she says, “an industry that perpetuated great harm to animals while putting Americans at risk.”

Kate Dylewsky, assistant director of government affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute, worked with the HSUS and HSLF to pass the Act. The win shows that animal welfare legislation “is something that can get through Congress. And this is something the American people care about,” Dylewsky says. It also offers momentum for other legislation. “Let’s do it again,” she says. “Let’s pass some more animal bills.”

HSLF is now advocating for the Better Collaboration, Accountability and Regulatory Enforcement (CARE) for Animals Act. The bill would strengthen the U.S. Department of Justice’s ability to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and “help all animals in captivity—research facilities, commercial pet breeding operations and those on exhibition at zoos and aquariums—from being harmed,” says Jennifer Eskra, HSLF director of legislative affairs.

In recent years, the fight for animals has accelerated. “Times are changing, changing fast, and we should be riding that wave right now,” says Harrison.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act joined a growing list of achievements. As advocates continue the fight, the list will only keep growing.

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Cover of All Animals Winter 2024 Issue