On March 30, 2017 the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1818) was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. Proponents of H.R. 1818 laud it as a bi-partisan effort to “prohibit private ownership of captive lions, tigers, and other big cats in the US.” — in other words, pets. However, this characterization appears disingenuous as most states already prohibit the ownership of big cats as pets. If passed as written, the primary impact of H.R. 1818 would be directed at zoos and sanctuaries that are not ideologically aligned with proponents espousing historical anti-captive wildlife sentiments.
Usurping the Animal Welfare Act
In a joint press release animal rights groups proclaimed H.R. 1818 would strengthen the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA). The CWSA is the 2003 Lacey Act amendment mandating interstate transport of big cats be limited to facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and their registered agents. This amendment is consistent with the primary directive of the Lacey Act which is to combat “trafficking” in “illegal” wildlife. The Lacey Act was never intended to regulate animal welfare. That is the dominion of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). However, H.R. 1818 seeks to expand the authority of the Lacey Act empowering U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to regulate “animal welfare” and “legal” wildlife, points of established law administered by USDA through licensing and inspections of qualified facilities.
Dan Ashe, former Director of FWS and current CEO of the AZA, has long maintained working relationships with radical animal rights proponents of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, particularly Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
Previous versions of the Big Cat Public Safety Act offered an exemption to facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a trade association favored by bill proponents for instituting animal rights policies into AZA accreditation. These same proponents have been engaged in an ongoing smear campaign against any zoo or aquarium accredited by rival trade associations. H.R. 1818 would continue to favor AZA, although no longer exempting them by name. The exemption is accomplished by inserting specific AZA policies regarding handling and breeding directly into the bill language. Using the Lacey Act as a vehicle, the bill seeks to rewrite a broad swath of USDA animal welfare regulations by doing an end run around the AWA. These animal rights groups hope to supersede regulations they were unsuccessful at changing in the AWA. If H.R. 1818 were to pass, FWS, without any experience caring for or regulating captive wildlife, would administrate and enforce the new regulations.
H.R. 1818- Big Cat Public Safety Act:
Section 3 Prohibitions, (e) Captive Wildlife Offense, (2) Limitation on Application, paragraph (1)(A), subparagraphs i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii and viii presume to rewrite and supersede an area of established law pertaining to the “animal welfare” of “legal” wildlife regulated by USDA under authority of the Animal Welfare Act, while maintaining an exemption for AZA zoos.
Public Safety or Animal Rights?
Most of the accidents with big cats, lethal and otherwise, have occurred at AZA zoos that are exempted from this legislation; most notably, San Francisco Zoo in 2007 when a tiger killed a patron and injured two others— and most recently, Palm Beach Zoo in 2016 when a tiger killed a zookeeper. There are only a small handful of states that don’t strictly regulate big cats, and a death from a pet tiger hasn’t been recorded since 2003.
At the end of the day, animal welfare is not under the purview of the Lacey Act. Further, FWS is not equipped to administer animal welfare regulations. Unquestionably, funding for this unprecedented and duplicative overreach will be difficult to appropriate under the Trump administration. Proponents of the Big Cat Public Safety Act have misled bill sponsors. There is no crisis looming. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is not about public safety. It is about picking favorites and eliminating zoos that will not voluntarily adopt the policies of the radical animal rights movement.