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First responders shouldn’t have to tackle tigers

Virginia Zoo

The award-winning documentary film, “The Conservation Game,” for which our work served as subjects, showcases how people have been able to purchase tigers and other big cats, as well as other exotic animals, at auctions. It also shows how some celebrity “conservationists” — figures seen routinely on television and thus trusted to educate us about endangered species — have allegedly misrepresented where they obtained their “ambassador” animals or where those creatures end up when, after a few months, they are too big and too dangerous to exploit further.

The film also tracks the progress of the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263; S. 1210) which has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, with 198 bipartisan cosponsors in the House and introduction in the Senate by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.). The bill prohibits exhibitors from using tigers as “selfie” props and phases out private, unlicensed ownership of big cats as pets.

Eliminating the exploitative use of tiger cubs for lucrative public contacts such as at privately run petting zoos will remove the financial incentive for today’s puppy-mill-style rampant breeding of big cats which, when they become too big to pet, are discarded, used for more breeding, possibly destroyed, or may end up in the illegal trade for their body parts. 

While stopping the abuse of these magnificent animals is a goal of the bill, equally important is the public’s — and, particularly, first responders’ — safety. The bill has the support of the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and many other first-responder organizations and individuals across the country. First responders should not have to deal with 300-plus-pound apex predators on the loose, as recently occurred in Texas.  

Sheriff Matt Lutz, whose officers in Zanesville, Ohio, dealt with the 2011 release of 56 dangerous animals — by shooting and killing 48 of them — puts it this way: “Our deputies go through immense training, a lot of different training on how to handle emergencies. But handling exotic animals is not part of our training, and neither should it be.” 

Why would any legislator decline to support such a common-sense bill? The simple answer may be misinformation. Some opponents have attempted to frighten the owners of roadside zoos, for example, by telling them they will be subject to Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) inspections in addition to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspections. This is utter nonsense. The bill does not change USDA’s role at all, except to reduce its burden by having fewer tigers to inspect. And the FWS would not do inspections; it would visit a licensed facility only if there were reports that the facility was violating the law by offering public contact with the animals. 

Occasionally we hear something from the bill’s opponents about “state’s rights” or “property rights.” We feel the best response to those claims comes from a first responder with direct experience with big cats, the president of the Texas Animal Control Association. He wrote: “This is not a property rights issue. No one has the right to jeopardize the safety of their neighbors and first responders by keeping predators as pets and doing so is a selfish disregard for those unfortunate enough to live and work nearby. This is not a state’s rights issue. Law enforcement representatives from all over the country are asking for this bill because the states can’t do it alone and need a common tool to best address this wide-reaching problem. This is a nonpartisan public safety issue.”

Congress should pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act this session. In the words of Dan Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums: “Right now would be good!”

Carole Baskin is the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, one of the largest sanctuaries devoted exclusively to big cats that is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. She is a leading force behind the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act.

Carney Anne Nasser is the second full-time animal law professor in the world. For the past four years, Nasser has worked with acclaimed director, Michael Webber, and his team on the award-winning documentary, “The Conservation Game.”

Tags Big Cat Public Safety Act big cats captivity Conservation exotic animals first responders fish and wildlife Richard Blumenthal Richard Burr Susan Collins Tigers Tom Carper

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