Legislation to corral big cats draws the wrath of the circus industry

Animal rights lobbyists are teaming up with Congress to try and reduce the estimated 20,000 tigers, lions and other big cats that are kept in backyards and roadside zoos across the United States.

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The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and other groups are throwing their weight behind the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which would ban keeping the animals as pets or breeding them for sale.

Under the bill, people who own big cats would be allowed to keep them, so long as they register their animals with the federal government. New acquisitions of the animals would be barred. Some states have already banned private ownership of big cats, while others have no restrictions. 

IFAW argues the animals in untrained hands have become a public health danger. Since 1997, the group estimates that big cats in the U.S. have killed at least 22 people and injured roughly 200 more.

“It’s not just an animal welfare issue. It’s started to be taken more seriously as a public safety issue, so I think if we can get that message across, I think we can be successful,” said Tracy Coppola, IFAW’s campaigns officer.

The bill would target several breeds of big cats, such as cheetahs, leopards, lions and tigers. 

But the aggressive push for the bill is being met with fierce resistance from the circus industry. 

While the legislation includes an exception for traveling circuses, representatives for the Big Top say there is already plenty of regulation in place. 

“We are opposed to it. We believe it is an unnecessary piece of legislation,” said Steve Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which is the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“There are a lot of local, state and federal regulations already in place governing the care of these animals. … We are very comfortable and confident with our own animal care,” Payne said.  

Lobbyists for the circus industry fear the bill would affect the work of professional animal handlers who work with trained cats and say a broader exception might be needed.

“The circuses hire its acts from people who are federally licensed exhibitors and would be adversely impacted by this bill,” said Joan Galvin, a senior adviser at Kelley Drye & Warren. The firm represents Feld Entertainment as well as several other animal exhibitors. 

“Most people would like to see a broader exemption because this is still going to catch several people who are professionals. … I think the larger community of animal exhibitors will oppose the bill,” Galvin said.  

Supporters of the legislation stress that their focus isn’t the circus, but the thousands of amateur zookeepers who care for dangerous cats despite having little experience and training. 

“The focus is not the circus. The focus is on people who own and breed these cats and operate roadside zoos,” Coppola said. “We didn’t want to get sidetracked. That is not the point of the bill.”

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) first introduced the big cats bill last year in response to the 2011 grisly incident in Zanesville, Ohio, where police officers were forced to gun down dozens of exotic animals — including lions and tigers — after their owner deliberately released them before committing suicide.

Tippi Hedren, famous for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, reached out to McKeon’s office soon after the Zanesville incident.

Hedren, who runs a big cat sanctuary in California, “educated us about the huge underground market of big cat possession, and the limited amount of resources the [Agriculture Department] has to address this problem,” said Alissa McCurley, a spokeswoman for McKeon. 

McKeon reintroduced the big cats bill this year with Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) as a co-sponsor.

Animal rights groups estimate 10,000 to 20,000 big cats are being kept in backyards and roadside zoos in the U.S., but that’s only an educated guess. They say the true number won’t be known until the animals in private hands can be registered with the government. 

“We don’t how many big cats are kept and where they all are. It’s a dangerous situation that needs to be addressed,” Coppola said. 

IFAW is trying to draw attention to the bill with an ad campaign on the Washington Metro and on Capitol Hill bus shelters that encourages people to contact Congress and voice support.

Coppola is also trying to build a coalition of police officers and firemen to speak out in favor of the bill, including first responders from Zanesville.

The IFAW has brought on Tim Harrison, who responded to the emergency in Zanesville, as a consultant. IFAW is also sharing with lawmakers a letter in support of the bill from Matt Lutz, the Muskingum County, Ohio, sheriff who dealt with the Zanesville incident.

Other animal rights groups are lending support to the lobbying campaign.

“It’s not just us talking to legislators. We are mobilizing our grassroots to talk to their legislators,” said Adam Roberts, executive vice president for Born Free USA, a wildlife conservation group.

Hedren is urging visitors to her sanctuary’s website to contact lawmakers to support the bill. 

Animal rights activists said they have made some outreach to the circus industry as well. Prior to the bill’s introduction this year, Galvin with Kelley Drye & Warren said she was shown an early draft of the legislation by congressional aides. 

“Obviously, they reached out to us for a reason. Certainly, reaching out to the circus community was appreciated and including the circus exemption was an act of good faith,” Galvin said. 

But Galvin still has concerns about the bill, calling it “overly broad and overly restrictive.” She argued that the bill could affect state fairs, zoos that are not members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and even movie and television producers who use big cats.

“And at some point, where do the future cats come from?” Galvin said.