Originally Published in: Patch
Published on: July 30, 2022
Written By: D'Ann Lawrence White
WASHINGTON, D.C. — After lobbying for years to pass legislation to protect big cats, internationally known animal activist and founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Carole Baskin, is celebrating Friday's 278-134 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263).
Baskin said it's only appropriate that this legislation be passed on July 29, International Tiger Day.
The passage of the bill is one of the highlights of her 20-plus-year battle to shut down roadside zoos profiting from the misery of lions, tigers and other big cats.
The bill would prohibit people like one-time zookeeper Joe Exotic, featured in the hit Netlix series, "Tiger King," from operating roadside zoos where patrons are allowed to pet tiger cubs for a fee. It would also prevent zoos like the now-out-of-business Dade City's Wild Things from forcing reluctant tiger cubs to swim with patrons for a fee.
Additionally, the bill, championed by Rep. Michael Quigley, D-Illinois, and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, would ban people from owning big cats as pets.
While the two-season Netflix series attempted to discredit Baskin and fellow animal activists, it did manage to shed light on how cruelly and neglectfully tigers and other big cats are treated by roadside zookeepers who are more intent on turning a buck than ensuring the welfare of the animals in their care.
Viewers were horrified to watch as Joe Exotic showed no qualms about beating and whipping tigers in his care while the cameras were rolling and making them live in small, barren cages in which they could barely turn around.
During testimony before the House, animal experts described lions, tigers, panthers and other big cats that weren't fed properly, weren't allowed freedom to exercise or socialize, and received little or no veterinary care.
Legislators heard about a tiger that was discovered tied up in a dirt-covered back yard with no food or water.
They heard stories of how newborn cubs were ripped away from their mothers before they were weaned to pose for photos and petting opportunities with paying guests.
They heard about tigers forced into semi-tractor trailer trucks with little ventilation and soaring outdoor temperatures for lengthy cross-country trips after being sold to other zoos or for personal pets.
After filing suit against Dade City's Wild Things, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals received permission to inspect the privately owned zoo. However, before PETA inspectors could arrive, the owners, realizing they had more tigers than were permitted, sent more than a dozen of their tigers to Joe Exotic's GW Zoo in Oklahoma. During the trip, a pregnant tiger's cubs died.
To make room for Wild Things' tigers, Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, removed 17 of his older tigers from their cages and shot them.
Exotic, was eventually tried and sent to federal prison in Oklahoma for 21 years for not only shooting the 17 tigers but for trying to hire a hitman to kill Baskin.
Although Joe Exotic claimed to have given away all the animals in his zoo to his partner, Jeff Lowe, before heading to prison, the court awarded Baskin the deed to his GW Zoo property. Baskin, her husband, Howard, and fellow animal advocates visited the property and uncovered mass graves containing animal bones on the property that was documented in the Discovery Channel program, "Carole Baskin's Cage Fight,"
Earlier this month, Baskin spoke to hundreds of animal advocates at a conference hosted by the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., urging them to contact their Congressmen to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act. More than 100 animal advocates joined the Humane Society Legislative Fund to lobby Congress the following week.
"The big cat breeding and cub-petting industry creates a cycle of never-ending misery for the animals involved," said Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Human Society of the United States.
"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," she said. "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 back yards as 'pets.' Others simply disappear."
While the Netflix series focused on the flamboyant, country-singing Joe Exotic with his bleach blonde mullet haircut and extravagant tiger print costumes, Block said, "There are countless Joe Exotics out there. '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. 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."
Sheriff Matt Lutz of the Muskingum County Sheriff's Office said it's not just an animal cruelty problem, it's a public safety issue. He told the House how his office was forced to shoot and kill dozens of exotic animals after their owner freed them from enclosures in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011.
"I've experienced the worst-case scenario first-hand, and it is a gut-wrenching experience to think about tigers, lions and other big cats on the prowl in such close proximity to our homes and our schools," said Lutz. "The tragedy in Zanesville highlighted the serious threat posed to our communities when private individuals are allowed to keep big cats in their back yards. Law enforcement does not receive training about how to handle these dangerous incidents, yet are the ones called to respond when disaster strikes."
Since 1992, there have been at least 100 dangerous and cruel incidents involving big cats kept as pets or in private menageries.
- In 2005, a tiger roamed loose for days before being shot and killed in Simi Valley, California.
- In 2008, a leopard approached a woman in her yard in Neosho, Missouri.
- In 2009, a 330-pound tiger was discovered in a back yard in Ingram, Texas.
- In 2013, a 400-pound pet lion escaped in Fairfield Beach, Ohio.
- In 2019, an escaped pet cougar was found lounging in a driveway in Parkland, Florida.
- And in 2021, a juvenile tiger wandered through a Houston neighborhood.
Click here for a complete list of big cat incidents presented to the House.
"Ultimately, this legislation is about public safety," Quigley said. "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."
He noted that law enforcement groups across the country, including the National Sheriffs' Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the the National Animal Care and Control Association, supported the Big Cat Public Safety Act to protect both animals and people.
"For too long, lax laws have allowed private citizens to own big cats," he said. "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."
The companion bill, Senate Bill 1210, has nearly 50 co-sponsors.
"It is an enormous expense to care for these animals and reckless behavior foists a massive long-term financial liability on animal sanctuaries," said Baskin. "None of these private big cat owners holds onto the animals for very long, and that means they get turned over to groups like Big Cat Rescue that have to take in these traumatized, often very unhealthy animals."
"Breeders who pump out countless big cats for cub-petting are worse than puppy millers, placing unfunded mandates on animal rescues who have to clean up their mess and care for these majestic creatures once they've grown too big to exploit," said Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, who has spent years fighting for this legislation only to be disappointed when it hasn't passed. "We applaud House leadership for bringing this important measure that will help keep families in suburbia safe from abused big cats to a vote before the August recess."
He said the bill was introduced long before "Tiger King." However, it took a "salacious reality television series" to finally put the abuse of big cats on America's radar.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act builds on the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, passed unanimously in 2003, that sought to ban the trade in big cats as pets.