House Passes 'Tiger King' Bill to Ban Most Big Cat Ownership

The bill limits who can transport, breed, and buy the animals.

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children's hands reach through the bars to stroke tiger cub
The bill would ban cub petting. Aleksandra Iarosh / Getty Images

Featured in the Netflix series "Tiger King," legislation banning contact and ownership of big cats was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday. Now it goes to the Senate for a vote.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act passed by a 272-114 vote with 44 members abstaining. The bill is actually an amendment to the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981 "to further the conservation of certain wildlife species." The bill limits who is able to sell, transport, buy, or breed big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, jaguars, cougars, or hybrids of those animals.

If the bill passes, most people will not be able to privately own big cats. Wildlife sanctuaries, state-licensed veterinarians, colleges and universities, facilities with a specific license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a few other groups will still be allowed to have the animals.

Existing facilities would still be permitted to keep their big cats as long as they register them with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, don't breed them, and don't allow any contact between the animals and the public.

The bill was sponsored by Reps. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

There are as many as 10,000 big cats in captivity in the U.S. , according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. There are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild.

Animal Groups Weigh In

According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have happened in 46 states and the District of Columbia since 1990. Twenty-four people have been killed, including five children. Currently, 35 states ban keeping big cats as pets, according to HSUS.

“The historic passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act in the House shows that so many members of Congress agree that big cats are deserving of protections from abuses inherent in keeping big cats as pets and using vulnerable cubs for public encounters," Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, tells Treehugger.

"Multiple undercover investigations by the Humane Society of the United States confirmed that tiger cubs used for photo ops are cruelly pulled from their mothers at birth, denied adequate nutrition and necessary veterinary care, and subjected to stress and physical abuse. We urge the Senate to move swiftly to pass [this bill] so we can put an end to these horrendous practices once and for all.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also released a statement.

“When people visit an AZA-accredited facility and see lions, tigers, and cheetahs, they know those animals are receiving the best care possible. The same cannot be said for substandard facilities who use lion and tiger cubs as props for their business,” said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of AZA.

“As the cats grow, these facilities are typically ill-equipped to handle the animals, resulting in overcrowded spaces or worse, animals killed to support the illegal trade in their body parts. I commend Reps. Quigley and Fitzpatrick for sponsoring the legislation, and I am hopeful the U.S. Senate will now act swiftly and pass this much-needed legislation.”

Carole Baskin, founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, has spent years lobbying for the bill. "Tiger King" often focused on her long-standing feud with tiger owner and breeder Joe Exotic.

"We are thrilled that the Big Cat Public Safety Act passed the House with bipartisan support to protect the big cats from abuse, the public and first responders from injuries and death, and the tiger in the wild from extinction," she posted on Facebook. "None of these important goals are partisan in any way and we hope the Senate will follow suit quickly to make it into law."

The bill was passed by the House on the same day that a tiger named Kimba at Big Cat Rescue attacked five-year volunteer, Candy Couser. She unclipped a gate which the rescue says was against protocol and, "Kimba grabbed her arm and nearly tore it off at the shoulder."

Big Cat Rescue said that Couser, "insisted that she did not want Kimba Tiger to come to any harm for this mistake." The tiger will be placed in quarantine for 30 days as a precaution, "but was just acting normal due to the presence of food and the opportunity."

The rescue said that accidents like these are why the new legislation is necessary.

"The fact that, despite our intense safety protocols and excellent record of safety, an injury like this can occur just confirms the inherent danger in dealing with these animals," said Big Cat Rescue, "and why we need the Big Cat Public Safety Act to eliminate having them untracked in backyards around the country and ending up in sanctuaries where wonderful people like Candy Couser have committed themselves to providing care for those discarded by the pay to play industry."