By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
Thousands of tigers, lions, leopards and other big cats are kept in private homes and poorly run exhibits across the United States. These wild and dangerous animals are forced to spend their lives in inhumane conditions, locked up in small cages that are as far from their natural habitat as can be. And as we have seen time and again, they create a major safety hazard for citizens who live in their vicinity.
Today, Reps. Michael Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., reintroduced the Big Cat Public Safety Act in the U.S. House of Representatives to tackle this problem head-on. The bill, which has the support of the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the National Sheriffs’ Association and other organizations, will ban the possession of big cat species like tigers and lions by individuals and poorly run animal exhibitions that allow public contact with big cats.
Earlier this month, another shocking reminder of the dangers associated with private ownership of big cats surfaced in Houston, Texas, where officials discovered a tiger living in a small, filthy, unlocked cage in an abandoned house. Since 1990, at least 375 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have occurred. Twenty-four people have been killed, including four children, and dozens of others have lost limbs or suffered other often-traumatic injuries. In many cases, when these animals escape their insufficiently secure caging, they are shot and killed, often by first responders not trained to deal with such situations. In a number of cases, people have even encountered abandoned tiger cubs wandering the streets.
America has a big cat crisis, and it is largely the consequence of a reckless and indifferent industry that breeds these animals for an activity known as cub petting. At fairs and roadside zoos, for fees ranging from $10 to $500, members of the public can feed, play with, and take photos of themselves and others with baby tigers and lions.
The infant big cats often endure heartbreaking abuse, as documented by HSUS undercover investigations at two roadside zoos. To prepare the animals for public handling, the babies are torn from their mothers shortly after birth. This is traumatic for both the mother and the babies because normally, tiger and lion cubs stay with their mothers for about two years. The babies are deprived of proper nutrition and maternal care necessary for normal development and instead endure rough public handling and physical abuse from handlers to keep them under control, all while being deprived of sleep and regular feedings. They often suffer from parasites and other ailments.
When the cats grow too large for public handling in just a few months, they are discarded, usually by being warehoused at roadside zoos or pseudo sanctuaries, or by being sold as pets, and new baby tigers, bred just for petting, are introduced. And so the cycle continues.
The tigers discarded from cub petting may also feed the illegal market for animal parts used in traditional Asian medicine. With so many homeless tigers and no system to track them nationwide, the animals are often worth more dead than alive. Through Humane Society International, we’re trying to stem the tide of tiger trafficking and tiger farming. But as long as the United States continues to turn a blind eye to this problem on our own soil, we are hardly well-positioned to press other countries to confront these cruelties.
At the HSUS, we know something about what tigers and other big cats need, because we care for them at the Fund for Animals Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, along with hundreds of other animals. We’re periodically invited to advise and support law enforcement agencies that respond to the range of dangerous situations that arise with these animals in communities across the nation. Alexander, one of our tigers, was rescued along with about a dozen other dangerous wild animals after their owner abandoned them, leaving them without food or water. His story had a happy ending, but sadly, the outcomes for most tigers owned as pets or by roadside zoos aren’t as positive.
No one needs to pet a tiger or a lion or keep one at home as a pet. It’s not a right or even a privilege that society owes to individuals. It’s a formula for disaster, danger, and fatal outcomes for both people and animals. We painfully recall the incident in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011, when the owner of a private menagerie released dozens of big cats before committing suicide, requiring law enforcement to hunt down the animals while risking their own lives. By taking dangerous animals out of the hands of unqualified people, the Big Cat Public Safety Act creates a common-sense solution for a problem that jeopardizes our citizens and creates the worst possible outcomes for the animals involved. Please contact your members of Congress and urge them to cosponsor this important bill and get it enacted soon.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.