In Wake of Tiger King, It’s Time to Pass Federal Legislation to Stop Exploitation of Big Cats

The Zoological Association of America, the bill’s primary opponent, has withdrawn its opposition​

In the salacious Netflix series “Tiger King,” the public got both a magnified and distorted view of the antagonists in the debate over roadside zoos that exploit big cats.

Instead of taking a deep dive into the life story of even a single big cat, the directors intentionally chose a false equivalency between the key protagonists and framed their series around a super-hyped blood feud between Joe Exotic and the Howard and Carole Baskin. 

What viewers were denied, except in an incidental way, was a clear-eyed view of the misfortune, misery, and violence that befall animals thrust into the exotic-animal trade. There were occasional glimpses of the tiger trade’s inhumanity, including one scene of a tiny newborn cub being taken from her mother at birth to be used for commercial cub petting.

That’s in contrast to “Blackfish,” also a huge commercial success, that materially drove down ticket sales at SeaWorld and set up a negotiation that led to SeaWorld committing to end its captive breeding and theatrical performances of orcas.

What barely got a mention in “Tiger King” — in the final episode, and only as a footnote — was the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA), the federal bill introduced by Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., in the House and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in the Senate. that would put a stop to the trade in big cats as pets, including for cub petting. (The Baskins, the key architects of the bill, have long been working toward a larger national solution, and Joe Exotic was just one human manifestation of how the lives of animals are upended by commercial tiger and lion breeders.)

Before the release of “Tiger King,” the legislation had bipartisan support and good momentum. After the Tiger King phenomenon, the bill has remained on the same trajectory, thus far neither helped nor hindered in the halls of Congress by this brand of tabloid television.

Now it’s time to put the “Tiger King” sideshow aside and do something meaningful about the mistreatment of captive big cats.

ZAA Withdrawal of Opposition Clears Path for Big Cats Bill

The BCPSA is positioned for action now that the single notable organization opposing the measure has in recent weeks withdrawn its opposition. That group is the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), a relatively new zoo and aquarium consortium.

Before ‘Tiger King,” a handful of Republican lawmakers worked to stall the bill by creating one more hyped-up blood feud — between ZAA and the much more established AZA. That’s the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which has long supported the BCPSA.  “Congress shouldn’t pick sides,” went the argument from the bill’s very small number of Congressional critics.

Now there’s no need to take sides, with ZAA having surveyed its 60 or so members and found that 59 of them do not favor public interactions with big cats and other dangerous carnivores. We applaud ZAA for revising its standards of accreditation to disallow public contact with predators.

The AZA and its 230 or so member institutions are just one part of the coalition supporting the bill.  The list of backers includes the National Sheriffs’ Association, hundreds of other law enforcement agencies, and just about every animal welfare group under the sun, including Big Cat Rescue, Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation, Center for a Humane Economy, SPCA International, IFAW, and PETA.

The animal welfare groups know all too well the fate of animals conscripted into this trade. Accreditation standards for major zoos prohibit allowing public handling of dangerous wild animals as a matter of animal and public health. Sheriffs and other first responders do not want emergency personnel confronting a 350-pound tiger when they rush in to stop a fire or interrupt a domestic dispute. 

The image I remember best from “Tiger King” was of an ominous, black, and endlessly tall tornado approaching the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, with its 200 captive tigers. Had the tornado swallowed up the ramshackle park, it might have scattered dozens of tigers throughout the rural community.

A decade earlier, another emotionally troubled exotic animal owner in Zanesville, Ohio released 50 exotic animals, including grizzly bears, wolves, and big cats, into the community just before dusk. Sheriffs’ deputies had been ordered to shoot the animals to prevent an encounter between a resident and a frightened and disoriented carnivore.

Pick your cause for a dangerous-animals-at-large scenario: Tornado, derecho, troubled owner, vandal, disgruntled employee cutting a hole in a fence. Any one of them might trigger a Zanesville-like incident to recur at any one of the facilities with a surplus of powerful and captive wild animals and a deficit of proper protocols or sound housing.

And for what? So someone can pet a tiger cub for 10 minutes and the roadside zoo owner can pocket the fee for this form of exploitation?

Let’s remember what happens in their first few months of life: The cubs are taken from their mothers at birth, deprived of the proper nutrition found only in mothers’ milk, denied sleep while being  handled for hours on end, and physically punished for exhibiting their natural behaviors.

Each Discarded Big Cat May Cost A Million Dollars to a Sanctuary

Cub petting as a business strategy lasts just a few months for each animal. They are too big to handle at five or six months of age, and that’s why the operators must keep breeding tigers and lions to keep a fresh supply of cubs.

Then, an unethical owner may kill the tiger for the bone trade, perhaps as Joe Exotic did. Confine the animal in a shoddy, largely barren dirty enclosure as an addition to the collection. Deal the animal into the pet trade. Or discard the animal through some other channel, effectively handing over responsibility to an animal welfare group that steps in to pick up the pieces.

These altruistic groups must then build a shelter big enough and strong enough to contain one of the world’s largest land carnivores, hire caretakers, enlist an exotic animal veterinarian, and keep up the care for up to two decades. While keeping everyone safe.

Each tiger or lion thrust into that world costs an animal welfare group as much as a million dollars over the course of the animal’s lifetime.

This is an unfunded mandate on a small business, which is what rescue organizations are.

Why not solve the problem on the front end and stop people from putting juvenile tigers and lions into the funnel in the first place? 

Opponents can no longer hide behind any legitimate organization. Today, only a shriveling gaggle of roadside zoo operators object to the bill.

They cannot rely on conservation arguments, because no reputable advocate for the species believes that excessive breeding of animals of unknown genetic background helps restore tigers or lions in their habitats thousands of miles away.

Joe Exotic is in federal prison, prosecuted by a Republican U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma, in part because of illegal killing of tigers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently cited his successor for numerous animal-care violations, including not providing veterinary care and poor housing and sanitation.

Where in this whole cycle of abuse and unethical business practices is anyone who warrants the title of “responsible business owner?” These “business owners” are charlatans, their conservation arguments hocus pocus, their carnival barking just a distraction. Their legacy is one of cruelty, chaos, and cost-transference to the rest of society. 

Please, Madame House Speaker and Mr. Senate President, let’s call the vote.

Please take action by asking your legislators to help the big cats.

2 thoughts on “In Wake of Tiger King, It’s Time to Pass Federal Legislation to Stop Exploitation of Big Cats”

  1. My wife just passed along an article regarding your organizations attempt to Stop the selling of Hawaii raised Roosters to Guam and to other destinations I’m sure. I would like to communicate that tethered Roosters are rampant here in Hawaiian Paradise Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. As a matter of fact, there is a gentleman three lots up from me who has 12-15 chained or tethered Roosters as we speak. I’ve tried to communicate with our local representative and I’m just blown off and told this area is designated as Agricultural which frankly is a joke. I know of several locations just like my neighbors within HPP with many more Roosters The conditions in which the Roosters are raised is straight up animal cruelty in my humble opinion and their ultimate destination is certainly even worse. I sincerely hope this issue is resolved ASAP and if I can be of assistance, please let me know.
    Regards, Jim Fitzgerald

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