Lobbying for Big Cat Laws
Cleo was once a cute, cuddly cub. Her owners put a harness on her to walk her. As she grew stronger, her former owner could not handle her enough to get the tiny harness off. As the years passed it became completely embedded in Cleo’s skin. Eventually as she grew the harness would have crushed her ribs. Because the owner did not know how to properly feed the cat, when she arrived at Big Cat Rescue she was so malnourished that to anesthetize her to remove the harness would likely have killed her. The cat seemed to know the dilemma. She repeatedly came to the fence and allowed Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin to carefully cut away the nylon harness and the skin that had grown around it with a razor blade. The cat would take as much as she could, then walk away, then return for more. She would growl and hiss in pain, but seemed to know it had to be done and never turned on the person causing the pain.
Ty is a Serval, a beautiful gold and spotted cat of about 40 pounds with huge ears that give his kind the best hearing of any cat. A breeder convinced a young couple that if they raised this kitten with their human infant they would bond and be friends for life. When mature wild cats hunt, rather than take on the strongest animal in a herd, they instinctively seek the young or infirm. At age three, Ty became an adult, the three year old playmate became prey, and Ty attacked. The offending cat, who had done nothing but follow his natural instincts, was then driven for days during mid summer in a crab trap in the back of a pickup truck to be discarded, and was almost dead on arrival from exposure and dehydration.
Big Cat Rescue is home to the world’s largest permanent rescue facility for abused, abandoned and retired exotic cats. The sanctuary houses well over 100 lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, bobcats, servals and others; 16 species in all. Most were former pets abandoned by their owners. Some came from the entertainment or edu-tainment industries, including zoos. What they all have in common is that they have been denied their freedom and no matter how many big cats are rescued, that doesn’t address the underlying cause of so much abuse and abandonment. Education alone is insufficient to address the root cause.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Legislation cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” Carole Baskin has been working to support more protective wildlife laws for years, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the big cats found the purr-fect lobbyist in Paul Miller. Hearing about the plight of the great cats in captivity, at a Capitol Advantage conference in Washington, D.C., Paul knew immediately that he could use his 10 years of experience, which included being named the youngest President of the American League of Lobbyists, to help end the trafficking in lions, tigers and other big cats as pets. It didn’t matter that Big Cat Rescue was a small non profit with no ability to hire his firm, Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, LLC; Miller saw this as a way to make a difference and leaped at the chance.
Haley’s Act was a house bill that was not getting the attention necessary to pass in late 2006, so Paul Miller made it his mission to promote the bill in the next legislative session. The federal bill bans contact with big cats and their babies and its passage, which would likely be unanimous, like most bills of its kind are, if it ever made it to the floor, would end about 94% of the problem caused by big cats being over bred and discarded. If cats like Snorkle were not bred for the purpose of petting sessions, they would not be discarded a few months later when they outgrew their usefulness.
Snorkle was a tiger who was bred to be used in photo ops where people will pay $20.00 to have their picture made holding a cute little cub. These cubs are ripped from their mothers when they are only days old and exposed to a continuous barrage of photo flashes for hours on end. To keep them handlable, they are often declawed and since it is illegal to do so, their precious paws are sometimes butchered with pruning shears. To keep them small and docile, so that they can be used for a longer period of time, they are starved, deprived the calcium needed that would enable them to grow strong teeth, and often drugged. Even after all of these assaults on the little cubs, they still will be too hard to handle by the time they are 3 months old and will be discarded in favor of a new litter. There is no place for these castoffs to go.
The zoos don’t want them. In many cases, zoos are where the parents originated in the first place. Because people will pay to come see the new baby animals, many zoos breed indiscriminately to attract the paying crowd. When the cubs are no longer cute and cuddly they are sold out the back door to brokers who sell them to pet owners, circus acts, canned hunts (where they are shot in cages for a fee) or they are cut up for their parts. The US is the largest supplier to the illegal black market for tiger bones which are used in the superstitious Asian medicinal trade. In many cases, the adult big cats are just given away to people who figure they can breed the cats to get a cub to use or enjoy and sell the rest of the litter…and the cycle spirals out of control. Invariably, the people breeding and using these cats say they are doing it for conservation, but these cats are almost all of unknown genealogy and could never be used to repopulate the wild.
The narrow mission of Big Cat Rescue is to provide a good home for the limited number of cats that the sanctuary can afford to take in. But, can only save a small percentage of those in need. The sanctuary must turn away over over 100 cats each year. Because of this, the broader mission of the sanctuary is to reduce the number of cats that suffer the fate of abandonment and abuse by educating as many people as possible about the conditions that lead to the plight of these animals and how they can help. As these people contact their lawmakers, change becomes possible. “Having a professional like Paul Miller to guide us through the legislative maze makes such a huge difference. We have an issue that almost everyone can agree on, but it takes the experience of a lobbyist to make sure the right people know about it,” says Founder Carole Baskin.
There are two major sources of the abuse and abandonment. The first is the “pet trade”, the breeders who sell these wild animals to people as pets and the people who buy them. The second largest source of the animals is the “entertainment” or “edu-tainment” industry. What both of these sources have in common is the public’s desire to touch the wild and their ignorance as to what that really means for the animal.
Even kept outside, the cats usually make terrible pets. They are adorable cubs when purchased. Having these “cool” unusual pets, gets the owner the attention from other people that humans tend to crave. But the cats live for 20 years if well cared for, and as they mature they become increasingly problematic as instinct takes over. Their “play” is rough because their skin is thick enough to withstand it. Ours is not, so even their affection can be deadly. It is pure instinct for them to attack children, other pets, or anyone whose back is turned. Many are abandoned because the owner’s personal circumstances change. We get them because people get married, get divorced, get sick, die, get bitten, or just get tired of the heavy burden of caring for them which can easily cost upwards of $6,000.00 a year per big cat.
In addition to the bad experience pet owners have, most of the wild cats purchased as pets have a horrible existence. A large percentage die as tiny kittens because owners do not know how to bottle feed them. Of those that live, huge numbers suffer malnutrition due to owner ignorance of their nutritional needs. The cats who have been used as photo props are often blind or nearly blind; jumping at shadows and living in constant fear. Most live a horrible life in cages that, while often legal, do not meet their physical or psychological needs. The default standard is set by USDA that only requires the animal be able to stand up and turn around in its cage.
In 2003 Big Cat Rescue had to turn away 312 unwanted big cats and every year that number had been doubling. In December 2003 The Captive Wild Animal Safety Act was signed into law that made it illegal to sell a big cat across state lines as a pet. For the first time ever, the number of big cats we had to turn away dropped in the following year. The new law was enacted as part of the Lacey Act and stopped interstate transport, but it did not address breeding and trade at the state level. In December 2004 Big Cat Rescue enlisted the help of Capitol Advantage to enable us to connect our growing support base with their legislators. This would turn out to be the single most important investment that Big Cat Rescue would make in achieving our mission.
Since 1990 the headlines have reported 75 human deaths and more than 256 human maulings by captive exotic cats. This has resulted in the killing or deaths of more than 200 captive big cats. By being able to bring this information to the attention of the public, the press and the congress, we have seen significant change.
In 2005 four states passed big cat bans (AR, IN, KY & NY) and we still had to turn away 94 big cats. In 2006 three more states passed big cat bans (KS, LA & MD) and 7 countries passed bans on activities such as big cats in circus acts, and the number of unwanted big cats dropped to 81 as of the end of 2006. Additionally, due to Big Cat Rescue’s ability to customize campaigns directed at the USDA, asking for better enforcement of existing laws, we have witnessed an increase in the number of offenders having their licenses suspended. From 2003-2005 only 4 big cat facilities were prosecuted, but just in 2006 and 2007 ten more of these horrific compounds have been fined and had their licenses revoked.
While the new laws are helping, they have gaping loopholes that you can jump a tiger through. Most of the laws allow an exception for anyone holding a USDA license, and all it takes to get one is $40.00 and a one page form asking for name, address, and the promise that you will use the big cat for some sort of commercial purpose; like photo ops, or taking the cats to fairs, or charging people to come see it.
There are countless reasons why big cats should not be bred for life in cages, and no reason other than human ego for allowing the practice. America needs laws that ban the breeding, trade and contact with exotic cats if we are ever to stop the abuse and abandonment. It is critical that small organizations like ours be able to lobby congress for the changes necessary to protect the both our citizens and the animals. Baskin gratefully acknowledges that, “A small non profit like ours could never afford a high powered lobbyist like Paul Miller. We are so thankful that he chose to lend his experience to our mission.”