President Biden Signs Bill Outlawing Private Ownership of Big Cats
The days of paying to pet lion and tiger cubs, as portrayed in the hit Netflix documentary television series “Tiger King,” are officially over in the United States.
On Tuesday, President Biden signed a bill into law that seeks to halt the exploitation of big cats by preventing unlicensed people from owning, breeding and transporting these animals. The law also bans licensed exhibitors — mainly zoos and sanctuaries — from allowing the public to touch the animals or hold cubs.
“Tiger King,” which captivated viewers stuck at home in 2020, shone a light on the fraught world of private big cat ownership and highlighted the “miserable conditions thousands of tigers, lions, leopards, and pumas are kept in by irresponsible owners,” Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, said in a statement.
The seven-part series depicted a turbulent industry of roadside zoo attractions in the U.S. and zoomed in on a now-shuttered facility in Oklahoma once operated by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a colorful character who also goes by the name Joe Exotic.
The show also focused on simmering discord between Mr. Maldonado-Passage and Carole Baskin, a self-described animal rights activist often clad in animal-print apparel who denounced Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s zoo.
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At that zoo, G.W. Exotic Animal Park, which once promoted Groupon admission deals, customers could pay to cuddle with baby cubs and take photos with them. The “Tiger King” footage included a scene of a cub being separated from its mother shortly after birth.
In January 2021, several months after the show’s release, Mr. Quigley introduced the “Big Cat Public Safety Act,” which in July of this year passed in the House of Representatives with a 278-134 vote and then in the Senate unanimously earlier this month. The animals covered under the bill are species of lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, cougar and hybrids of these cats.
The new law will “not only help end the cruel and inhumane cub petting industry,” Mr. Quigley said in a statement, but also keep communities safer.
Animal rights advocates celebrated the legislation, which they described as long overdue. Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said that the law ended “a warped industry with no socially redeeming purpose, perpetrating great harm to animals while putting Americans at risk every day of the year.”
Ms. Amundson added that the bill would put a stop to what she called “an endless cycle of exploiting and mistreating big cat cubs, who were dumped after they grew too large for photo ops.” In the last two decades, more than 400 “dangerous incidents” involving big cats occurred in 46 states and the District of Columbia, including at least 24 deaths, according to the H.S.L.F.
Under the new law, owners of big cats have 180 days to register their animals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People who fail to do so face a fine of up to $20,000 or five years in prison.
In 2018, Mr. Maldonado-Passage was arrested after he tried twice the prior year, unsuccessfully, to hire people to kill Ms. Baskin. Mr. Maldonado-Passage paid an employee $3,000 to cut off Ms. Baskin’s head, according to court records. In a second attempt, he made the grave blunder of hiring an undercover F.B.I. agent.
He was also found guilty of falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act for his role in trafficking and killing tigers.
Mr. Maldonado-Passage, who maintains his innocence, is now serving 21 years in prison.
Ms. Baskin, who is the chief executive and founder of a Tampa, Fla.-based organization called Big Cat Rescue, told The New York Times that she viewed the bill’s passage as “the greatest achievement in my 30 years of working to stop mistreatment of big cats.”
She also said in a statement that the bill came after “many years of battling against narcissistic, abusive, dangerous men who dominated this cruel trade and did everything they could to stop its passage, including wanting to intimidate, discredit, and even kill me.”
She expressed gratitude for being “harder to intimidate or kill than some thought.”