The Tiger Next Door

There are norms and basic guidelines regarding responsible pet ownership and the relationship with our “companion animals” in today’s society. But what happens when the choice of that companion animal itself becomes a public safety issue?

It is estimated that there are more captive tigers kept in the United States than there are roaming free worldwide. The extent of this “big cat” animal welfare and public safety challenge is unprecedented. Unfortunately, we don’t know the precise numbers of big cats — lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and others — in private hands in the United States, because of woefully inadequate federal regulation.

Many of these big cats are kept as private pets, often in inhumane conditions, by individuals who do not have the resources or training to care for these deadly animals. From backyard exotic pet collections to cub handling and photo-op displays, the extent of private ownership of big cats in the country is alarming in magnitude, strikingly unregulated and virtually unrecognized by the general public.

The U.S. House of Representatives is taking a critical step forward in addressing this astonishing situation this week by holding a hearing on legislation known as The Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1380). This commonsense, bipartisan legislation would restrict private ownership of big cats and bring an end to the trade in “pet” tigers, lions, and other big cats.

Dangerous incidents, including maulings, escapes, and deaths of both people and animals across the U.S., H.R. 1380 addresses the glaring public safety risks associated with private ownership of big cats. Responding to such emergencies is incredibly resource-intensive and puts tremendous strain on local resources and law enforcement officers. Thus, in addition to support from first responders, the National Sheriffs’ Association, animal control officers, qualified sanctuaries, accredited zoos and aquariums, medical professionals and conservation advocates, the proposed restrictions have the overwhelming support of the American public.

Nothing more effectively illustrates the safety threat posed to communities by private ownership of big cats than the shocking events that took place in Zanesville, Ohio, a few years ago. Dubbed the “Zanesville Massacre,” dozens of exotic animals were released into the community, and most had to be killed by law enforcement and emergency responders.

Among the animals released from the backyard enclosures of a private collector were 18 tigers, 17 lions and three mountain lions. The immediate danger to both the community and to those responding at the scene forced law enforcement officers to make the gut-wrenching but necessary decision to shoot the animals before they could harm residents. The stress experienced by first responders and the community as a whole continues even years later.

In addition to protecting communities and first responders, H.R. 1380 would help to address the serious animal welfare challenges associated with the trade in “pet”’ big cats. The vast majority of “pet” big cats are kept in unsafe and inhumane conditions, often in cramped, unsanitary enclosures without proper veterinary care, nutrition, enrichment or opportunity to engage in natural behaviors.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare sees the Big Cat Public Safety Act as a critical step in our efforts to protect big cats around the world, promoting both community and animal wellbeing and creating solutions that have impact. We applaud the U.S. House for considering this important measure to better protecting wild cats nationwide and around the world, while taking steps to improve the security of communities and first responders.  

Beth Allgood is the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s country director for the United States.

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