Month of the Big Cat



black leopards on the looseBy Beth Preiss


Although 2008 is the Chinese Year of the Rat, August may be remembered as the Month of the Big Cat. In less than three weeks, one lion, two leopards and five tigers escaped or attacked people in the United States. Communities from coast to coast were reminded of the dangers and difficulties of keeping these wild, majestic animals in captivity.

On Aug. 3, a tiger jumped out of an enclosure and mauled a volunteer at a Warrenton, Mo., exotic animal menagerie that previously had lost its U.S. Department of Agriculture license to operate as an exhibitor. The man’s leg had to be amputated below the knee.

On Aug. 4, a 16-year-old reportedly entered a cage to take a photograph at a Branson West animal attraction and was severely injured by three tigers; he remains in critical but stable condition.

On Aug. 5, a man working at an Illinois circus training facility was bitten and scratched by a tiger.

Animal services personnel responding to a call about a large dog on the roof of a Nevada home on Aug. 19 instead found two pet leopards that had gotten loose. On Aug. 20, Florida authorities were able to recapture a lion and tiger that escaped from an exotic animal facility, possibly due to a tropical storm. In these two incidents, fortunately, no one was hurt by these powerful predators.

Due to a lack of regulation, no precise figure is available for how many big cats are in private hands in the United States, but estimates range between 10,000 and 15,000. That includes an estimated 5,000 tigers – more than the number of tigers remaining in the wild. Accredited zoos and responsible sanctuaries may house approximately 10 percent of these animals.

The rest often live in deplorable conditions in roadside exhibits, traveling shows, pseudo-sanctuaries, basements, barns and backyards. People purchase cute cubs, and when they grow too large and aggressive to manage, the animals may be confined to cramped cages, becoming ticking time bombs in our neighborhoods.

Eleven people have been killed by captive big cats in the United States since 2001 – more than one per year. These kinds of tragedies could be prevented by common-sense laws that would keep big cats out of untrained hands.

Most states prohibit keeping big cats as pets, but Missouri lawmakers have rejected such proposals. As a result, the state’s laws regarding exotic animals are among the weakest in the nation. Individuals who keep big cats outside of zoos, refuges, research and circuses only are required to register the animals with law enforcement agencies at the county level.

There are no standards for safety and care, and enforcement is difficult. Some jurisdictions such as Kansas City and Springfield have stronger rules, but statewide action is needed.

Neighboring states Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky have banned certain wild animals as pets in recent years. Missouri should follow their lead and prohibit the keeping as pets of big cats and other dangerous wild animals before another person is injured or killed. To protect public safety and the animals’ welfare, wild animals belong in the wild.

Beth Preiss is director of the exotic pets campaign for The Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal protection organization established in 1954.

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