It was a Tuesday evening in October of 2011 when Terry Thompson, a private owner of exotic animals in Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages of his 56 tigers, lions, cougars, bears, and wolves and let them loose. When Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew J. Lutz and his deputies arrived on the scene, they were face to face with a public safety nightmare: lions and tigers drifting towards the nearby town as dusk approached. Deputies had no choice but to shoot most of the animals, including 38 big cats, before they could scatter into the night and threaten lives.
This tragedy was the tipping point for our nation, for Big Cat Rescue, and for Sheriff Lutz. He quickly became a vocal and effective advocate of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a common sense and urgently needed bipartisan solution to the problem of dangerous big cats kept in unsafe circumstances across the country.
Since 1990 there have been over 800 dangerous incidents involving big cats. Thirty-four people have been killed, including children, and hundreds have been mauled. The probability of a dangerous big cat escaping may be low. But when it does happen, it poses a serious and completely unnecessary risk to public safety, law enforcement, and first responders.
Because the threat of a loose big cat could occur anywhere and the burden of responding to such an incident would undoubtedly fall upon law enforcement officers, Big Cat Rescue decided to reach out to the nation’s sheriffs and ask for their support in our efforts to end the private ownership of big cats as pets in the United States.
We attended our first National Sheriffs’ Association Conference at the start of 2016. Many wondered what we were doing there. Most of our cursory conversations included an explanation that we were, in fact, a rescue organization for wild cats. (Keep in mind that companies who provide services and products to law enforcement commonly use big cats in their logos and names.) But once people understood who we were, it was surprising how many Sheriffs and deputies immediately recalled a facility or private owner with a big cat in their jurisdiction and how many of these cats were being kept in questionable conditions. Clearly, we were in the right place.
After that conference our Director of Outreach, Jennifer Leon, worked with the National Sheriffs’ Association to facilitate a resolution in support of the Big Cat Public Safety Act – recognizing “that the private ownership of big cats in America is a serious public safety problem which requires the passage of the ‘Big Cat Public Safety Act’ to ensure big cats only live in secure facilities that can properly provide for them and do not diminish public safety”. This resolution was the first of its kind and has been invaluable in our efforts to gain congressional support for the bill. You can link to the resolution from our website at http://bigcatrescue.org/lawenforcement/.
We also published an article about Zanesville and the need for legislation in the July/August 2016 issue of Sheriff & Deputy magazine and expect to publish another article this summer.
Jennifer recently spent a week in Washington DC, meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill and once again representing Big Cat Rescue at the National Sheriffs’ Association Conference. This year our friends at International Fund for Animal Welfare joined us in the exhibit hall. They provided signage and small toy tigers to attendees as a way of saying thank you to our country’s highest constitutional law enforcement officers for their support in ending the private ownership of big cats as pets. Of course, plush toy tigers are the only tigers that belong in homes!
In addition to exhibiting, Jennifer had the unique opportunity to briefly address the NSA Executive Committee, Board of Directors and Past Presidents with our message of thanks. It was certainly the highlight of her trip and a wonderful moment for big cat advocacy.
We could not be more grateful to NSA staff, Board members, and Executive Leadership for their continued support of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Likewise, we thank them for welcoming Big Cat Rescue into their community as proud partners.
Jennifer Leon, MPA
Director of Outreach