In our highly partisan world, it’s not often that the evenly-split US Senate can fully agree on something.
But that’s what happened this week, as the chamber unanimously passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a legislation aimed at protecting species like lions and tigers from being kept as pets or unethical zoos.
The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in July. It prohibits keeping big cats as pets, and also bans public contact with these animals, including cub petting and photo ops.
While cub petting might seen harmless, it can be a deadly business. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, for-profit big cat owners who offer opportunities to pet and take photos with cubs often kill the animals when they are grown and no longer profitable.
The bill was sponsored by senators Richard Blumenthal and Susan Collins and representatives Michael Quigley and Brian Fitzpatrick. It now goes to the desk of President Joe Biden, who has expressed support for the bill.
“Big cats like lions, tigers, and cheetahs belong in their natural habitats, not in the hands of private owners where they are too often subject to cruelty or improper care,” Senator Collins said. “Our legislation will prohibit the private ownership of big cats, which threatens the safety of the animals and the public and harms conservation efforts. I am pleased that our colleagues supported our bipartisan effort to improve the welfare of animals.”
The bill makes exemptions for sanctuaries, universities and zoos. Current big cat owners will be grandfathered in but will have to register their animals for safety reasons.
The bill was first introduced a decade ago in 2012. But the hugely popular 2020 Netflix documentary series Tiger King brought the issues of big cat ownership into the public consciousness, adding fuel for the bill’s passage.
Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue who was prominently featured in the series, was one of the most vocal supporters of the legislation.
“Without a doubt Tiger King and Carole Baskin’s celebrity were a key ingredient in getting this done” Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, told Rolling Stone.
“Passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act into law is a worthy cause for celebration, both for the animals themselves and public safety,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva. “Treating tigers, lions, and other big cats like house pets—or worse, making them props for photo ops at cheaply maintained tourist traps—is abusive to these animals and puts the communities they’re in at risk.”
In addition to receiving unanimous, bipartisan support from the US Senate, the bill was widely praised by animal rights groups.
“With the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, Congress has sent a global message that the US stands firmly against wildlife crime and on the side of tiger conservation,” said Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at WWF. “Once signed into law, this legislation will provide stringent protections and oversight for captive tigers and other big cats, as well as the communities in which they are being held.”
“Following the Senate’s historic approval of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, this essential legislation is finally very close to becoming law,” said Susan Millward, executive director of AWI. “We must end the exploitative and dangerous trade in pet big cats, and ensure that no more cubs are ripped from their mothers at birth to be traumatized for profit.
We’re so glad this bill has passed and will protect big cats and their cubs from exploitation. Too many lions, tigers and cheetahs have faced abuse and death from being kept as pets and in private zoos.
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