One Year After ‘Tiger King,’ Bill Aims to Protect Big Cats

The former roadside zoo owner known as Joe Exotic, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, remains in prison. The animal rights activist he was convicted of trying to kill, Carole Baskin, was given control of his old zoo in Oklahoma.

But one year after the premiere of the Netflix series“Tiger King,” an unexpected quarantine binge hit that focused on their feud and the cutthroat world of roadside zoos, tigers and other big cats remain unprotected from the exploitative practices the series helped reveal.

Now, a bipartisan group of United States senators has introduced the latest version of a bill designed to keep unlicensed individuals from owning big cats and forbid zoo owners from letting the public pet the animals or hold cubs.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, introduced the Big Cat Safety Act last year, but it did not make it to the floor for a vote. Mr. Blumenthal said he was hopeful that with Democrats in control and some Republicans already supportive of the legislation, this is the year the bill will finally clear the Senate.

“What I’ve seen is a groundswell of support,” Mr. Blumenthal said on Tuesday. “I don’t want to overstate it, but it really seems like an idea whose time has come.”

Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Richard Burr of North Carolina, agreed to introduce the bill on Monday with Mr. Blumenthal and Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.

“Big cats like lions, tigers, and cheetahs belong in their natural habitats, not in the hands of private owners where they are too often subject to cruelty or improper care,” Ms. Collins said in a statement.

The bill is similar to legislation that Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, introduced in 2020.

That bill, which would have allowed breeding and transporting of big cats only by educational facilities, and wildlife sanctuaries and zoos that restrict direct contact between animals and the public, had 230 sponsors and was passed by the House in December.

Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said the Big Cat Safety Act had the support of law enforcement organizations and dozens of zoos and sanctuaries, giving it “significant momentum.”

“Whether it’s Joe Exotic, Doc Antle or Joe Blow, we can’t permit private individuals to keep big cats captive for pleasure or profit,” she said in a statement. “These operations endanger the public and produce the worst possible fate for the animals involved.”

Under Mr. Blumenthal's bill, it would be illegal for a private individual to transport big cats across state lines, breed them or own them. Zoos, sanctuaries and other exhibitors and organizations that are licensed by the Department of Agriculture or by a federal facility registered with the department would be exempt. Under the bill, no zoo or exhibitor could allow direct contact between members of the public and the animals.

The law already requires all zoos to be licensed federally, according to Mr. Blumenthal’s office.

Ms. Baskin’s organization, Big Cat Rescue, has long pushed for the Big Cat Safety Act, which was first introduced in 2012. The organization has been calling for a ban on cub petting for more than 20 years.

“There is almost nothing more adorable than a tiger cub, and it’s very understandable if you don’t know the back story to want to pet a tiger cub and take a picture with it,” said Howard Baskin, Ms. Baskin’s husband and the treasurer and secretary of Big Cat Rescue. “It’s a miserable life for the cub.”

The documentary was criticized by conservation groups and animal rights activists for not focusing enough on the abusive practices of roadside zoos and instead playing up salacious details, including the mystery around the disappearance of Ms. Baskin’s first husband.

More tigers live in captivity in backyards, roadside zoos and truck stops in the United States than remain in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Before his arrest and conviction, Mr. Maldonado-Passage was a major breeder and seller of tigers and other big cats, who churned out cubs for profitable petting and photo sessions. When they became too big and dangerous for play, he disposed of them.

Some were sold as pets to private buyers and others went to other roadside zoos for breeding. Some simply disappeared.

The documentary’s footage of baby cubs being ripped from their mothers so they could be petted by the public shocked many viewers. Since then, state legislators have introduced their own version of bills that would ban such practices.

Keith Evans, president of the Lion Habitat Ranch in Las Vegas, which has 31 big cats, said he was worried that legislators have become too reactionary and that the new laws being passed around the country could create bureaucratic entanglements that would punish responsible zoo owners.

“The way some of the bills are worded, they’re wide open to interpretation,” he said. “There are enough rules on the books that if they just enforce them it would make everybody happy.”

Mr. Blumenthal said the bill he introduced was meant to protect big cats from cruel and dangerous practices, not hamstring responsible zoos and sanctuaries.

He said the bill had been referred to the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Mr. Carper chairs.

“My focus is on preventing abuse and exploitation of the big cats and safeguarding the public,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “Those two goals are paramount.”

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