Press Releases

City Bar Supports Big Cat Public Safety Act

Private Ownership of “Big Cats” Leads to Animal Abuse, Illegal Trafficking, and Undermines Public Safety

The New York City Bar Association has issued a report supporting passage of the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1380/S.2561), which would prohibit the private ownership of tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars (a group popularly referred to as “big cats”) or any hybrid of these species.

This extensive report offers a detailed examination of inadequate state and federal regulations regarding big cats; the abuse, mistreatment, and negative life outcomes currently experienced by big cats under private ownership; and the threats to public safety posed by private big cat ownership. The report also dispels the myth that private ownership contributes to conservation, when in fact it undermines conservation goals.

According to the report, “the current regulation of big cats in the United States is a patchwork of state laws; it requires a federal solution in order to safeguard public safety, promote animal welfare and wildlife conservation, and combat illegal wildlife trafficking.” Conservative estimates gauge that there are 5,000-7,000 privately held tigers in the United States, far exceeding the number of wild tigers, of which there are approximately 3,200 worldwide. Existing laws often contain wide loopholes and “are easy to circumvent… state governments regularly fail to meet tracking requirements and underenforce big cat regulations.” The current regulatory framework is inadequate.

“Privately owned big cats are subjected to neglect and abuse and face high mortality rates and significant long term health problems, as well as high prospects for abandonment and euthanasia,” states the report. Most privately owned big cats experience substandard, detrimental conditions “including deprivation of adequate space, exercise, socialization, veterinary care, nutritious diet, and enrichment. Privately owned tigers have a high mortality rate, with experts estimating that up to 90% die within the first two years.” The report details the widespread abuse of tigers held by roadside zoos and the common birth defects among privately owned tigers.

Cubs are particularly popular in petting zoos and face unique brutalities “in an attempt to control or condition them to tolerate direct physical contact with humans.” Cubs are regularly subject to inhumane body modification, such as defanging and amputation of cubs’ toes, and are often separated from their mothers in order to maximize docility to humans. Because cubs become too big and dangerous to pet at only three months old, “[c]ub-petting attractions drive the vicious cycle of breeding, trading, and dumping of tigers” due to the need for a constant supply of cubs.

In addition, “[t]he private ownership of big cats presents a serious risk to the safety of the public and law enforcement agents. No amount of training or discipline can make big cats safe as human companions… [because] big cats are wild animals and retain their natural instincts to hunt and attack, regardless of how they are raised.” the report states. “Between 1990-2012 there have been more than 300 reports of dangerous incidents involving privately held big cats; the real number of incidents is likely to be higher.” Many such incidents occur as a result of mishandling by owners.

Many breeders and big cat owners claim that keeping captive predators contributes to conservation of these species. The report dispels this myth, demonstrating that “captive big cats have never been successfully released back into the wild. Most large captive-bred carnivores die if returned to their natural habitat, as they lack the natural behaviors critical for success in the wild.” Moreover, “large volumes of unmonitored and untracked captive tigers in the United States become easy targets for black market sales.” The report examines the ways in which lax regulatory schemes contribute to this state of affairs, to the detriment of privately owned big cats. Furthermore, the proposed legislation benefits humans: because wildlife trafficking funds many criminal networks involved in human trafficking and the drugs and weapons trade, curbing wildlife trafficking has cascading social benefits for people too.

The full report can be read here: