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Big cat bill propelled by ‘Tiger King’ has shot at becoming law

Carole Baskin walks through a hallway
Julia Nikhinson
Carole Baskin walks through the Longworth House Office Building on Dec. 9, 2021.

Legislation to restrict the private ownership of big cats is expected to pass the House this week and has a distinct possibility to become law. The bill gained increased traction recently due to the Netflix series “Tiger King,” which brought attention to the issue and one of the legislation’s top advocates, Carole Baskin.

Baskin, founder and CEO of Florida rescue facility Big Cat Rescue, has frequently been spotted on Capitol Hill lobbying for the bill, meeting with dozens of lawmakers and key staff. Animal welfare lobbyist Marty Irby, who is also executive director of Animal Wellness Action, said that the bill now stands the best shot that it’s ever had.

“One of the key elements is that it’s not just an animal issue. It’s really a public safety issue,” Irby said.

Aside from concerns about the welfare of animals, the bill has gained support due to concerns about public safety and law enforcement personnel who are not trained to handle the big cats when faced with them.

“There were three incidents in Texas last year, Houston and San Antonio, where tigers were in someone’s backyard and suburbia, and they got out, and they are clearly a danger,” Irby said. “Most of the time, these cats, [law enforcement officers] just have to shoot them, and they end up killing them, and it’s so unnecessary.”

The Big Cat Public Safety Act, led in the House by Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), would limit ownership of big cats — including tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, cougars and hybrids of those breeds — to wildlife sanctuaries, state universities and certified zoos, and prohibit breeding the cats unless they are at a certified zoo or animal exhibitor. Those authorized to display big cats would have to keep them at least 15 feet away from the public or build a permanent barrier to prevent contact.

The bill grandfathers in those who currently own big cats, allowing them to keep the animals, provided that they do not breed, acquire or sell any prohibited wildlife species; do not allow direct contact between cats and the public; and register the cat with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The legislation would significantly hamper the “cub-petting” industry, in which members of the public pay to play or take photos with tiger cubs or other big cats.

“ ‘Tiger King’ has clearly put this on the radar for everyone,” Irby said. “If we had not seen COVID and ‘Tiger King’ come out at the same time when COVID first hit and be such an overwhelming presence around the globe, really not even just the U.S., then we probably would not be where we are today.”

Baskin, who has previously criticized the Netflix show, feels differently. In an email, she said that the bill will pass “in spite of Tiger King.”

“Howard Baskin and I spent five years educating the producers of Tiger King about the issues and the need for the Big Cat Public Safety Act to pass before tigers become extinct in the wild, due to the legal smokescreen for illegal activities like poaching that our current laws enable,” Baskin said.

With a bipartisan group of 258 co-sponsors signed on to the bill, the Big Cat Public Safety Act is expected to easily pass the House this week. The legislation previously passed the House in December 2020 but did not have enough time to move forward in the Senate before the end of the 116th Congress.

This time, the bill has a possibility of passing in the House by unanimous consent, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week. Advocates for the bill in the Senate are exploring ways to advance it in the upper chamber. A Senate version of the bill has 45 co-sponsors and is led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Carper (D-Del.), and Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Irby said that in meetings with at least 30 Republican Senate offices, he has not heard outright opposition to the legislation, making him hopeful for its prospects of passing in the Senate.

If passed there, President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law. The White House Office of Management and Budget released a statement of support for the bill on Tuesday.

For Baskin and Irby, the bill’s momentum is the culmination of decades of advocacy on the issue. A broader version of the legislation was first introduced in 2012. Baskin has been advocating with animal welfare groups since 1998.

There is some Republican opposition to the bill. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, argued that the bill would supersede state authority and duplicate existing processes elsewhere in the federal government, and proposed giving the Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the cats rather than the Department of the Interior.

“While I understand and agree that we want to reduce dangerous encounters between the public and big cats, I cannot support this bill because it is an overreaching, duplicative and precedent-setting proposal that has already served as a blueprint for pending legislation on other species,” Westerman said in the House Rules Committee on Tuesday.

Baskin said that Westerman’s impression that the bill would create overlap in the agencies is “just not true,” and criticized his proposal to let the Department of Agriculture enforce the bill.

“They don’t even enforce the meager laws currently on the books and this bill has been before Congress for over 10 years, so I think his 11th hour amendment is disingenuous,” Baskin said.

Irby said that Baskin’s advocacy has been key for the bill.

“Of all the celebrities I brought on Capitol Hill or anywhere else, I have never seen anything like the number of people that know her,” Irby said. “You cannot walk from the Capitol Hill Club to Cannon without four people wanting to stop her for a picture.”

The “Tiger King” series chronicled the life of Joe Exotic, who kept tigers and other wild animals at his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, or G.W. Zoo, in Oklahoma, and his feuds with Baskin.

Exotic is serving a 22-year sentence in prison for several charges, including falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act, and two counts of murder-for-hire targeting Baskin.

After a series of legal violations and disputes revolving around inadequate veterinary care, nutrition, sanitary conditions and enclosure size for the animals, the Justice Department last year took possession of 68 big cats, one jaguar, 11 endangered lemurs and 41 other animals that were previously at Exotic’s zoo and placed them in the care of new owners. In January, the department permanently prohibited the zoo’s current caretakers from exhibiting animals.

Baskin may soon be taking another victory lap.

“I feel certain the bill will pass the House this week and have good reason to believe it will pass the Senate this year as well, which just happens to be the Year of the Tiger,” Baskin said. “It’s not a moment too soon for the tiger.”

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Bruce Westerman Carole Baskin Joe Exotic Mike Quigley Oklahoma Richard Blumenthal Richard Burr Steny Hoyer Susan Collins Tom Carper
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