All that awaits is a stroke of President Joe Biden’s pen.
The Big Cat Safety Act was passed by the US Senate this week, clearing its last legislative hurdle. The law would ban the “ownership” of big cats as pets and would end their exploitation by roadside zoo operators, while also outlawing big cat breeding by private parties.
It’s a bipartisan effort that gained steam after years of efforts by animal rights organizations and documentaries like Netflix’s infamous Tiger King, which showed millions of viewers how the majestic felids are kept in cruel conditions and chained to an endless breeding treadmill to provide a constant supply of cubs. Those cubs are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth and used as props in lucrative “selfie with a tiger” offerings at unaccredited roadside zoos.
Private “ownership” of big cats has been a contentious issue and an embarrassment for American animal rights activists, particularly because almost all big cat species are critically endangered. There are more tigers living in backyards in Texas and Florida, for example, than there are living in the wild in the entire world.
Breeding for conservation is a process that involves careful planning by experts at accredited zoos and sanctuaries. Because there are so few big cats left, with some subspecies down to just a few hundred living animals, mates must be carefully chosen to avoid genetic bottlenecks and to ensure healthy and viable breeding populations in the future. As private breeders and roadside zoos breed the animals without regard to subspecies or genetic diversity, they do not contribute to species conservation in any meaningful way and can do harm with indiscriminate matches, conservationists say.
While the bill outlaws private ownership, it still allows sanctuaries, zoos and universities to keep big cats in regulated facilities that meet their physical and psychological needs. It also permits programs like the statewide puma project in California, which has been tracking the elusive felines for more than two decades and involves occasional sedation and temporary custody so the team can provide veterinary care.
“An extraordinarily cruel era for big cats in the U.S. finally comes to an end with the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” said Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society of the United States. “We’ve been fighting for this moment for years because so many so-called ‘Tiger Kings’ have been breeding tigers and other big cats to use them for profit. And once the cubs grow too large for cub-petting or selfies, these poor animals get dumped at roadside zoos or passed into the pet trade, which is not only a terrible wrong for the animals, but also a threat to public safety. Now that the Big Cat Public Safety Act will become law, it’s the beginning of the end of the big cat crisis in the U.S.”
The Big Cat Safety Act cleared congress in mid summer, and its passage in the senate means it will get to Biden’s desk with several weeks to go in the current legislative session. Biden is expected to sign it without delay.
“For me, this fight for the big cats was never personal,” said Carole Baskin of Florida sanctuary Big Cat Rescue. “This was always about developing a national policy to shut down the trade in these animals as props in commercial cub handling operations and as pets in people’s backyards and basements.”
The new law does nothing for big cats currently in captivity, unfortunately. Current “owners” will be grandfathered in, although they won’t be able to replace their “pets” legally, as breeding and purchasing the animals will be illegal. The last “pet” members of the panthera genus in the US will die out within the next two or three decades, assuming no major outliers in lifespan.