Conservationists alarmed by big-cats bill

A for-profit wildlife organization in Miami has hired its first K Street firm to lobby against legislation aimed at protecting big cats.

The Zoological Wildlife Foundation provides wild animals for events and gives educational tours at its facility in Miami. It recently hired Vitello Consulting — and former House National Resources Committee staffer Frank Vitello — to push back against the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act.

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That legislation, sponsored by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), would ban keeping lions, tigers and other big cats as pets and prohibit breeding or transporting the animals across state lines.

The foundation argues the bill would prove disastrous for conservation efforts by limiting the breeding and sales of big cats.

“[It] would destroy conservation programs that we, as private individuals, have created,” said the organization’s director, Mario Tabraue.

Vitello said he has already met with McKeon’s staff to air the Zoological Wildlife Foundation’s concerns.

“[They’re] great guys, but being boxed in by the groups that are supporting” the bill, he said in an email.

The big cats bill provides an exemption for traveling circuses, for members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and for organizations that follow AZA’s breeding guidelines.

The AZA believes that animals should not be bred into hybrids, according to a position paper by its board of directors, citing the potential health complications that can result. Vitello said that would be a big problem, because many animals in captivity are mixed.

“Most tigers you see at zoos or the circus are hybrids,” Vitello said.
   
Even though the Zoological Wildlife Foundation is registered with both federal and state regulators, if the bill became law, they would no longer be able to breed or buy new cats, Vitello said.

McKeon’s office said the carve-outs in the big-cats bill are not set in stone.

"We want to legislatively come up with a solution that protects everyone's interests and that makes sense on a federal level," said Alissa McCurley, communications director for McKeon. "Just because it's in there, doesn't mean there's a hard line on [the exemptions]."

Supporters of McKeon’s bill say that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the burden of both regulating licensed facilities and tracking down every rogue, illegally bought cat.

Animal rights groups estimate 10,000 to 20,000 big cats are being kept in backyards and roadside zoos in the U.S., and that the wild animals have killed 22 people since 1997, injuring about 200 more.

McCurley says inconsistent state and federal rules can cause accidental attacks. The legislation aims to bring nationwide regulatory certainty to everyone.

The Zoological Wildlife Foundation — along with Vitello’s other clients, the Zoological Association of America and The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species — want an exemption in the bill solely for facilities licensed by the USDA.

“It's a philosophical agenda cloaked in public safety,” Vitello said. “They can't put responsible owners that they don't like out of the tiger business if they allow those with a federal license to be exempted.”

Facilities that keep, rent out and throw events featuring wild animals can be big business. Those dollars end up going to conservation efforts and charities worldwide, he said.

"With any law, you want to make sure that it's not just good on paper, it actually accomplishes the goals you're trying to achieve on a practical level," McCurley said, adding that McKeon is open to making changes.

"That's what the legislative process is for," she said.