Two adorable tiger cubs, finding shelter beneath a tree.

Will Senate Pass this Big Cat Protection Bill?

It’s not uncommon to spot stray cats out and about from time to time, no matter where you live. Around ten million pets wander away from home each year, and thanks to microchipping, many ultimately find their way back. Some folks in Houston encountered a decidedly more unusual sight when they spotted India, a nine-month-old male tiger who got loose and evaded capture for nearly a week. Authorities managed to locate the exotic feline with the help of hundreds of calls from concerned citizens. He’s now safe and sound in Murchison, Texas at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, a shelter managed by the Humane Society of the United States.

Animal advocates are hopeful that India’s story may help restart discussions around H.R. 151, better known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The bill, which has bipartisan support, passed in the House of Representatives just before 2020 drew to a close. It’s now up to the Senate to decide what happens next.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act

When the COVID-19 pandemic first forced people indoors, Netflix’s Tiger King became an instant word-of-mouth hit. The miniseries brought renewed attention to the issue of unlawful and unethical exotic cat ownership. It played a direct role in Illinois Representative Mike Quigley’s decision to spearhead authorship of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. He made explicit reference to the series on the floor of the House remarking, “Tiger King showed the world in stark relief how exploitative, dangerous, and inhumane this tiny so-called industry is.”

Quigley’s bill would largely prohibit private ownership of wild cats including lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, and jaguars. Exemptions would apply for institutions like sanctuaries, universities, and zoos. Many individuals who already own big cats would also be exempted, though the bill would require them to register their pets with the appropriate authorities. The Big Cat Public Safety Act would also outlaw petting zoos featuring wild cubs and prosecute anyone offering opportunities to feed or take photos with these animals. Currently, cubs are often separated from their mothers shortly after birth for these purposes. The process can be a traumatizing one, especially when they suffer abuse at the hands of their owners.

Among the bill’s many co-sponsors was Representative Susan Collins of Maine. Collins noted, “Big cats like lions, tigers, and cheetahs belong in their natural habitats, not in the hands of private owners.” Opponents of the bill, such as Utah Representative Rob Bishop, maintained that it would have negative ripple effects for small zoo owners. These arguments were greatly outnumbered and the bill passed easily with a 272-114 vote.

Advocating for Big Cats

Champions of the bill include Carole Baskin, one of the colorful characters made famous by Tiger King. In the wake of India’s journey throughout Houston, Baskin called on the Senate to act. “Tigers are hardwired to roam hundreds of square miles,” she said, “so there’s no cage that’s going to be sufficient for them.”

India’s new handlers are also big fans of the bill. Noelle Almrud, the Black Beauty Ranch’s Senior Director, says, “We are staunch supporters of the Big Cat Public Safety Act.” She also assures concerned feline fanciers that India will never have to wear a collar again.