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Solutions for Protecting Big Cats from Roadside Zoos and the Abusive Pet Trade

Alicia Prygoski


  • Stronger laws and regulations at all levels of government, more stringent enforcement of existing laws, and effective lawsuits can help protect big cats from cruelty and curb the private big cat trades proliferation.
Solutions for Protecting Big Cats from Roadside Zoos and the Abusive Pet Trade
Kenneth Canning via iStock

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At this very moment, there are currently more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild. The Netflix docuseries, Tiger King, has captivated the nation. Unfortunately, the series focused more on the eccentric roadside zoo owners, big cat breeders, and the drama between them than it did on the abuse and neglect of big cats at roadside zoos. Protecting big cats from the abuse and neglect they face in private hands and at roadside zoos requires a multifaceted, complex solution. Stronger laws and regulations at all levels of government, more stringent enforcement of existing laws, and effective lawsuits can help protect big cats from cruelty and curb the private big cat trade’s proliferation.

Devastating Encounters Happen

Since 1990, big cats have attacked and mauled more than 250 people; approximately 150 cats have died as a result. In 2011, the city of Zanesville, Ohio, experienced an unprecedented and tragic event: Terry Thompson, the owner of a private animal menagerie, set free all of his animals and then took his own life. Fifty-six wild animals were released into the community, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, and 3 leopards. The Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office was tasked with controlling the situation. To protect the public, deputies ended up shooting and killing 49 animals. Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew Lutz referred to the killings as “senseless” and noted the emotional burden killing big cats and other wild animals placed on his deputies.

The Zanesville incident, though shocking, is far from the only time big cats have escaped from their cages, causing fear and alarm in surrounding communities and, in some cases, injuring or killing humans. Given the inadequate regulation of big cat ownership in the United States, these devastating encounters happen all too frequently.

As the Zanesville incident so clearly illustrated, allowing untrained individuals to keep big cats in their homes not only harms animals but also threatens public safety. Lions, tigers, and other big cats are powerful animals that can easily kill or severely injure humans. Private ownership of big cats endangers communities and first responders who are not trained to handle situations where a big cat has escaped.

Abuse and Neglect in Private Hands

People across the country are keeping tigers and other big cats in their backyards, in their living rooms, and in tiny cages in their homes. A private home is no place for a big cat to spend her life; big cats are apex predators who require a vast amount of territory. They can travel up to 35 miles a day in the wild.

Confining big cats to small, barren cages—often the case in private homes—takes a significant toll on their physical and psychological well-being. Privately owned big cats suffer from untreated illnesses due to a lack of veterinary care and muscle atrophy due to the inability to exercise properly. Improper nutrition causes metabolic bone disease, among many other issues that significantly diminish their health and quality of life. Additionally, improperly built or damaged cages with rusted wires or sharp, protruding edges can cause lacerations and puncture wounds in big cats.

Roadside Zoos

Private ownership of big cats should be prohibited, but there is another “big cat problem” in America: roadside zoos. Tiger King provided a faint glimpse into the dark world of roadside zoos and the big cat trade that permeates nearly every corner of the country.

Roadside zoos are unaccredited facilities that prioritize profit over animals’ health. Big cats in roadside zoos suffer a similar fate to cats private owners possess. As seen in Tiger King, they are exploited for entertainment and left to languish in small, barren, mud-filled cages, abused by roadside zoo owners and staff. They are fed spoiled meat and don’t receive proper nutrition, and their owners kill them when they need to make space for younger or healthier big cats who may be deemed more profitable.

Many roadside zoos offer cub petting to the public as an additional means of making money. Cub petting is when roadside zoos charge the public to play with, take photos with, or bottle-feed a big cat cub. Of all the big cat species, roadside zoos use tigers most frequently for cub petting. Patrons are charged anywhere from $10 for a photo with a big cat cub to hundreds of dollars for a private play session.

Though well-intentioned roadside zoo patrons may see it as a chance to get a photo with a cute baby animal, the cub petting industry fuels a cruel cycle of breeding and discarding big cats. Cubs can only be used for cub petting for two to three months before they grow too big and are considered “dangerous animals,” so cub petting operations need a constant supply of new cubs to meet demand. This drives rampant breeding in roadside zoos, in which big cats’ bodies are completely exhausted: they are forced to give birth two to three times a year, as compared to once every few years in the wild, and their babies are taken from them moments after birth.

After cubs outgrow their usefulness at cub petting operations, they are often illegally sold to other roadside zoos to live out their lives in cages or into the private “pet” trade. Or they are killed because roadside zoo operators do not want to pay to care for them properly.

Negative Impact on Big Cats in the Wild

The big cat trade negatively affects protecting big cats in the wild as well. Though roadside zoo operators and private owners often claim that they breed and keep big cats for “conservation purposes,” big cats raised and bred in captivity can never be released into the wild. The animals would struggle to survive with diminished predatory instincts. They would endanger wild populations, as they may carry and introduce novel strains of diseases into groups that have not previously encountered those diseases.

The US Department of State has confirmed that the excessive breeding and trade of big cats in the United States frustrates efforts to work with foreign governments to stop the trafficking of wild tigers. The United States looks like a hypocrite when requesting other countries to regulate their trade in big cats and big cat parts when the trade continues, largely unchecked, within our borders. Prohibiting the private possession of big cats is necessary to work more effectively with other nations to prevent their extinction.

Laws Are Lacking

The trade in big cats is an expansive, nationwide problem. Yet, it flourishes due to the lack of federal laws and regulations. There is no federal law that prohibits private ownership of big cats: this is left up to the states, which has resulted in a patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations that do not adequately protect big cats.

Currently, 33 states ban the private possession of big cats. Some of those states have exemptions for accredited zoos, sanctuaries, commercial exhibitors, and traveling shows. Thirteen states impose some type of state-level permit for the private ownership of big cats, though many states do not strictly enforce the permitting structure. Four states—Alabama, North Carolina, Nevada, and Wisconsin—do not regulate the private possession of big cats at all. Ohio passed a ban on the private possession of big cats shortly after the Zanesville incident to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

All 50 states have felony animal cruelty laws. These vary by state, but in general, big cats are covered under animal cruelty laws that prohibit intentionally or recklessly subjecting an animal to cruel treatment. Unfortunately, state animal cruelty laws are often not enforced stringently enough to prevent all situations of abuse and neglect for big cats and other captive wild animals.

The federal laws and regulations that exist to regulate the big cat industry are not far-reaching enough and are exceedingly underenforced. These include:

The Animal Welfare Act

Passed in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act sets minimum care standards to address housing, handling, food, water, and basic living requirements for most species of warm-blooded animals, including big cats, which are used for commercial purposes. It can prevent egregious acts of animal abuse and neglect at roadside zoos and cub petting facilities, but stronger laws are needed, especially because the Animal Welfare Act does not apply to privately owned big cats.

The Endangered Species Act

Passed in 1973, The Endangered Species Act is frequently cited as one of the nation’s strongest laws to protect wildlife. It prohibits the interstate and foreign commerce of listed species without a permit or Fish and Wildlife Service authorization and bans “taking” an endangered or threatened animal, including killing, injuring, harming, or harassing the animal.

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, introduced specifically to protect big cats, was signed into law in 2003 and became effective in 2007. It was built upon the Lacey Act, the country’s first federal law designed to protect wildlife and prohibits the illegal trade of wildlife in interstate or foreign commerce. The Captive Wildlife Safety Act makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase, in interstate or foreign commerce, live big cats.

Though these laws and regulations have been used to protect big cats in the past, stronger laws and more stringent enforcement are needed to ensure that big cats are not left to suffer in cruel conditions. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is supposed to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. A variety of factors have led to consistently lax enforcement.

There have been many occasions in which roadside zoo exhibitors with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of recent Animal Welfare Act violations have been allowed to continue operating for years. These facilities have had their licenses renewed without issue, creating a stark disincentive to fix their problems and properly care for their animals. For example, Joe Exotic, the notorious former roadside zoo operator featured in Tiger King, racked up more than 200 violations of the Animal Welfare Act at his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.

The Animal Welfare Act imposes minimum standards relating to keeping animals and requires compliance with recordkeeping rules. Animal Welfare Act violations at roadside zoos often include failure to provide veterinary care, sanitary enclosures, proper nutrition, and clean drinking water. More serious violations include a roadside zoo owner who instructed tourists to hit big cat cubs during cub petting sessions and a roadside zoo operator killing a leopard by inflicting blunt force trauma to its head.

Compounding the issue of frequent Animal Welfare Act violations, licenses to exhibit big cats and other wild animals are very easy and inexpensive to obtain. To obtain an exhibitor’s license under the Animal Welfare Act, an individual gets three chances to demonstrate that their facility does not presently have any Animal Welfare Act violations. Those looking to acquire a license to exhibit should instead have to pass a vigorous licensing inspection, showing that they have the funds and resources to provide proper long-term care for their animals, the ability to satisfy standards of veterinary care, psychological enrichment, and adequate space for exercise and natural behaviors.

Until recently, automatic license renewals allowed chronic Animal Welfare Act violators to continue obtaining annual licenses even if they were violating the Animal Welfare Act at the time of renewal. The USDA issued a final rule on licensing provisions this spring that, if properly enforced, could eliminate the problem of automatic license renewals to chronic violators. This enforcement is unlikely, however, as the USDA has a well-documented history of failing to use its discretion to enforce the Animal Welfare Act vigorously.

Protecting Big Cats

Lawsuits against Roadside Zoo Operators

As enforcement of laws designed to protect big cats is lacking, part of the solution is for citizens and animal protection organizations to bring lawsuits to enforce the law. These groups can help prevent cruelty to big cats by bringing lawsuits against roadside zoo operators who violate the Animal Welfare Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Lacey Act, or state anti-cruelty laws, which would create a new precedent for enforcement of these laws.

For example, in 2015, the Animal Legal Defense Fund brought a lawsuit against Cricket Hollow Zoo under the Endangered Species Act. The suit concerned the neglect of four tigers and three lemurs at the Manchester, Iowa, facility. The lawsuit set a critical precedent that the Endangered Species Act protects individuals of listed species in captivity in addition to those in the wild and resulted in injunctive relief forcing Cricket Hollow Zoo to surrender the animals at issue. The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Cricket Hollow again for maintaining a public nuisance by violating Iowa’s animal cruelty statutes and also sued the USDA for renewing Cricket Hollow Zoo’s exhibitor license despite the facility’s repeated Animal Welfare Act violations.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act

Another component of the solution is for Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill currently pending in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Introduced by Representatives Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), this bipartisan bill would prohibit the private possession of big cats and direct contact between big cats and members of the public.

By banning private possession, there would be uniformity among the states concerning private ownership. This uniformity is essential because the big cat trade and cub petting industry is inherently an interstate issue, with big cats being sold and traded across state lines and tourists crossing state lines to visit roadside zoos and cub petting operations. By prohibiting cub petting and other forms of direct contact between big cats and the public, this legislation would diminish the constant demand for big cat cubs and thus decrease the number of big cats bred for this cruel industry.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act grandfathers in current big cat owners but stipulates that they must register their big cats with the federal government and cannot obtain more. There would be a gradual but meaningful transition away from private big cat ownership. The House version has passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee and is waiting for a full vote on the floor.

Big cats cannot thrive in cages in captivity. They are wild animals that cannot be domesticated, and they do not exist solely for the entertainment of humans. The dangerous big cat trade in America has been allowed to grow and thrive to the extent that thousands of big cats are being mistreated and neglected at any given time. With more robust enforcement of federal and state laws, precedent-setting litigation, and the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, we could see a future in which big cats live out their lives free from exploitation.

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