On Sept 13, 2012, Sen. John Kerry [D, MA], Sen. Joseph Lieberman [I, CT], Sen. Bernard Sanders [I, VT] and Sen. Richard Blumenthal [D, CT] introduced S 3547, to prohibit the private possession and breeding of big cats. The bill will insure that lions, tigers and other dangerous big cats – which are kept as pets and exploited in roadside zoos and traveling exhibits – do not threaten public safety, diminish the global big cat conservation efforts, or end up living in deplorable conditions where they can be subject to mistreatment and cruelty. A companion version of the bill was introduced in April 2012 as HR 4122.
The debate over private ownership of big cats garnered national attention last October when the owner of a backyard menagerie in Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages of his tigers, leopards, lions, wolves, bears and monkeys before committing suicide. Local police, who were neither trained nor properly equipped to deal with a situation of that magnitude, were forced to shoot and kill nearly 50 animals, 38 of them big cats, before they could enter populated areas.
The bill would make it illegal to possess any big cat except at accredited zoos and wildlife sanctuaries where they can be properly cared for and sheltered, and would only allow breeding at accredited zoos, along with some research or educational institutions. Current owners would be allowed to keep the cats they currently have provided they register their cats with USDA to keep them from being slaughtered to sell their parts (see below), but they would not be allowed to acquire or breed more. Violators of the law could have their animals confiscated along with any vehicles or equipment used to aid in their activity, and could face stiff penalties including fines up to $20,000 and up to five years in jail.
It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 20,000 big cats currently held in private ownership in the U.S., although the exact number remains a mystery. In the past 21 years, U.S. incidents involving captive big cats, including tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs and lion/tiger hybrids, have resulted in the deaths of 20 humans, 246 maulings, 254 escapes, 143 big cats deaths and 131 confiscations.
Illegal trade in big cat parts and impact on conservation in the wild.
Despite the claims of breeders who profit from selling these animals, the rampant breeding of big cats in private hands to exploit in exhibits or inappropriately keep as pets does absolutely nothing to further conservation in the wild. In fact, the opposite is true. In the case of tigers, of the estimated 5000 in this country, only about 250 are pure bred subspecies and those are housed in AZA accredited zoos. All of the rest are “generic,” i.e. cross bred between two or more subspecies, and have no conservation value whatsoever. Undercover operations by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over the last decade and as recently as January 2012 have demonstrated that there is an illegal trade in big cat parts, including skins and bones. According to the International Tiger Coalition, the more these parts are supplied from the captive big ca