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House Passes Big Cat Public Safety Act to Prevent the Next ‘Tiger King’

House Passes Big Cat Public Safety Act to Prevent the Next ‘Tiger King’
Two tigers rescued from one of the animal parks operated by Joe Exotic, the focus of Netflix's Tiger King. Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to ban the keeping of big cats as pets, after the Netflix documentary series Tiger King drew renewed attention to the issue this spring.

H.R. 1380, or the Big Cat Public Safety Act, passed the House 272 to 114, CBS News reported. Specifically, it limits who is permitted to breed, sell, buy, transport or own large felines like lions, tigers and leopards.

"Animals like tigers, lions, leopards, and pumas should not be exposed to miserable conditions so many of them in our country currently face," Democratic Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, who introduced the bill, said in a statement. "By passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act we are one step closer to ensuring these animals are treated humanely and to keeping the public safe from dangerous big cats. It is my hope that the Senate will quickly bring this bill to the floor so we can get it signed into law before the year ends."

If the bill passes the Senate, most individuals will be prohibited from owning large cats, and direct public contact with the animals will be banned, CBS News explained. There will be exceptions for universities, wildlife sanctuaries, licensed veterinarians and people with a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Those who already own big cats may keep them if they register their animals and refrain from breeding them or sharing them with the public. Anyone caught violating the law would face a fine of up to $20,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.

The House passage comes about nine months after the nation was captivated by the Netflix series Tiger King during the initial days of the coronavirus lockdown. The series followed the career of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, or "Joe Exotic," who kept big cats in Oklahoma, CNN explained. Maldonado-Passage is now serving a prison sentence for killing five tigers and plotting to pay for the assassination of his critic Carole Baskin, who was also featured in the series.

Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, is one of several wildlife advocates who has been pushing Congress to pass the bill for years, CBS News explained.

"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 wrote 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."

While 48 Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the bill in the House, it is unsure how it will fare in the Republican-controlled Senate, according to CNN. The Senate bill has not yet made it out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which held its final markup of the current legislative session Wednesday. Further, while the Senate bill has some Republican cosponsors, Senate leadership criticized House Democrats for passing the bill instead of focusing on coronavirus relief.

However, Quigley emphasized in his statement that over-worked first responders are the ones who have to respond if unsafely-kept animals attack their owners or others.

"Big cats are wild animals that simply do not belong in private homes, backyards, or shoddy roadside zoos," he said in a statement. "Too often, law enforcement and first responders are the ones who end up in danger from these animals and, in a time when our first responders are already facing increased risk from the pandemic, we owe it to them to limit the additional dangers they face on the job."

In addition to being endorsed by a wide variety of animal welfare groups, the bill also has the approval of some law enforcement organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police, CNN pointed out. All told, more than 60 law enforcement and animal rights groups supported the bill, according to Quigley's statement.

"Long before 'Tiger King,' Joe Exotic and dozens of others like him were under our scrutiny due to their abuse of tigers – both adults and cubs," Humane Society of the United States CEO and President Kitty Block said in a statement. "While the world of private tiger ownership thrives in the shadows with little mandatory documentation, we estimate that hundreds of tigers across the country are kept as pets and money-making props by roadside zoos, pseudo-sanctuaries and cub-petting operations. They are often torn from their mother moments after birth, hit, dragged, and forced into photo ops, and live in squalid conditions. This is a public safety disaster. Congress must pass The Big Cat Public Safety Act to put an end to this cycle of misery, abuse, and danger once and for all."

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