Cub petting facilities — where visitors can directly interact with wild animals such as tigers and lions — gained national attention following the release of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King in March last year. In recent months, Tiger King personalities have been in the news once again, but this time for enforcement actions against them. While these actions likely helped the push to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban cub petting at roadside zoos and private ownership of big cats, the bill failed to pass the US Senate before the end of the 116th legislative session last year.
Yesterday, however, Representatives Mike Quigley and Brian Fitzpatrick, reintroduced the bill in the House. A companion Senate bill is expected to be introduced soon as well.
Animal welfare advocates believe last year’s momentum for the bill will continue into this year.
“Animals like tigers, lions, leopards, and pumas simply do not belong in private ownership. Not only does it place the public, including law enforcement and first responders, in grave danger – it also often results in these animals living in miserable conditions,” Rep. Quigley said in a statement yesterday. “After passing the House of Representatives last year with strong bipartisan support, I look forward to the Big Cat Public Safety Act advancing quickly and hopefully being signed into law this year.”
Tiger King follows zoo owners and cub petting operators in the United States. The docuseries largely focuses on Joe Exotic, former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for murder-for-hire and wildlife crimes, including killing five tigers and selling tiger cubs across state lines. Also featured are Doc Antle, owner of the Myrtle Beach Safari; Jeff Lowe, current owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park; and Carole Baskin, advocate against cub petting and CEO of wildlife sanctuary Big Cat Rescue.
The docuseries quickly rose in popularity last year due to the outlandish antics of the zoo owners. It was the fourth most popular show on Netflix in 2020. But for animal advocates and conservationists, the docuseries was a mixed bag.
“Unfortunately, Tiger King did focus more on the sensationalized roadside zoo owners than it did on the actual plight of the tigers, but there is no doubt that it did put a public spotlight on this industry and how it profits off of mistreating big cats,” says Alicia Prygoski, legislative affairs manager at Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).
The proliferation of captive tigers in the US has become a major problem, but the exact scale of this problem is unknown. Estimates on the number of captive tigers in the country range from 5,000 to 10,000. Currently, less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. The vast majority of captive tigers in the US live in roadside zoos, private homes, and breeding facilities. There are approximately 40 facilities that allow visitors to directly interact with big cats across the country.
These tigers often live in abysmal conditions where their basic needs cannot be met. In one scene in Tiger King, for instance, employees of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park drag a newborn tiger cub away from the mother as she’s still in labor; in another scene, a tiger cub is stuffed into a suitcase for private cub petting sessions at a hotel.
Tanya Smith, president and co-founder of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife sanctuary in Arkansas, says that animals in the cub petting industry often suffer from health issues. One common ailment is metabolic bone disease — a condition where bones become weak and easily break — which can result from cubs being taken away from their mothers and fed formula lacking essential nutrients. Smith says this is often done to keep cubs small and hungry for bottle-feeding sessions with visitors. “We actually rescued three tigers that couldn’t even walk when we got there. They were dragging themselves around and they were still put on display,” she says.
In addition to animal welfare concerns, experts warn that cub petting attractions are detrimental to conservation efforts.
“Though many private owners claim breeding benefits tiger conservation by increasing the population of this endangered species, tigers bred in captivity actually have no conservation value. Tigers bred in captivity are often inbred, which can cause birth defects and health issues that make them unsuitable for introduction to the wild,” says Leigh Henry, Director of Wildlife Policy at World Wildlife Fund.
Henry also worries that some of these captive tigers could end up in the illegal wildlife trade as only cubs between the ages of 8 to 12 weeks can legally be used for cub petting. Tigers are expensive to care for and are less profitable after they age out of cub petting.
Despite the controversial nature of cub petting, Tiger King zoo owners were propelled to Internet fame after the docuseries was released. Exotic was featured in countless memes and thousands of people signed online petitions to have him pardoned. Rapper Cardi B even joked about starting a GoFundMe for Exotic on Twitter, saying “I do love him tho [sic].” When the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, formerly owned by Joe Exotic, re-opened in May last year — after a brief hiatus due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions — crowds flocked to the zoo. One visitor told National Geographic that she decided to visit the zoo after watching Tiger King. She waited in line for over four hours for a cub petting session. (The facility has since closed down permanently.)
The increased attention on cub petting, however, also led to increased scrutiny.
Last October, Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari was charged with a series of crimes, including wildlife trafficking, animal cruelty, and conspiracy to wildlife traffic. The charges came after a months-long investigation by the Virginia Attorney General’s Animal Law Unit into alleged trafficking of lion cubs between Virginia and South Carolina.
Lowe of that Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park has faced multiple legal blows as well. In August, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) suspended his license to exhibit animals for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In one instance, inspectors found a lion cub that was lethargic, breathing shallowly, and seemingly unable to stand up, according to the complaint. Lowe subsequently terminated his license and announced he was going to produce video content of his tigers. In November, the US Department of Justice filed a civil complaint against Lowe for “recurring inhumane treatment and improper handling of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act” such as separating big cat cubs and lemur pups from their mothers for public handling.
“I think that these recent enforcement actions taken against the roadside zoo owners [featured] in Tiger King helped increase momentum for the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” ALDF’s Prygoski explains. “They illustrate exactly why the Big Cat Public Safety Act is needed.”
The Big Cat Public Safety Act would prohibit public contact with and the private possession of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or any hybrid of these species. Zoos licensed with the USDA would still be allowed to own big cats but without cub petting.
The association of The Big Cat Public Safety Act with Tiger King also resulted in criticisms of the bill. Some Republican legislators argued that Democrats were prioritizing the “Tiger King bill” ahead of Covid-19 relief.
The original bill passed the House of Representatives for the first time on December 3, 2019. The Senate failed to pass the bill before the 116th legislative session ended and advocates immediately began working to get the bill re-introduced as soon as possible in the new year.
“From the start, we knew that the Senate was going to be more challenging, so it wasn’t surprising that the bill only passed the House,” Prygoski says. “The fact that it did pass the House, though, is very significant and it will allow us to continue building momentum so that we’re in an even better position to get the Big Cat Public Safety Act passed into law this session.”
Smith of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge notes that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the Senate’s ability to discuss the bill. And, of course, the attack on the Capitol last week has further impaired Congress’ capacity to perform its regular duties.
Smith worries that public attention will move away from cub petting. “I am concerned that the bill will lose momentum due to Tiger King not being so fresh on everyone’s mind but I know that there are offshoots of this film that are working to tell the story,” Smith says. “The true story of animal abuse behind the scenes.”
Bobbi Brink, founder and director of Lions, Tigers and Bears, a wildlife sanctuary in California, is hopeful that the bill will pass this year. She notes that momentum for the bill is not solely due to Tiger King. “We will continue to prevail regardless of Tiger King’s popularity,” Brink says.
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