Lions And Zoos

Will the US Congress act to regulate big cats kept in captivity? (remark)

  • Americans may think the illegal trade in tiger parts is halfway around the world, but in reality, the United States is a big part of this lucrative global market.
  • Recent research has indicated that the amount of tiger parts entering the United States is likely much greater than previously reported, and raises questions about the demand for tiger parts in the United States as well as the role captive American “pet” tigers in trade.
  • The Big Cat Public Safety Act being debated in Congress revises restrictions on owning and exhibiting big cats in the country and should be supported, say the authors: “It’s only a matter of time before the next pet tiger escapes and causes severe damage or death.
  • This article is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

After two seasons of the hit TV series tiger king and a new dramatization, Joe versus Carolwhich will debut soon, millions have been desensitized to the dangerous and cruel issue of keeping big cats as pets.

In the United States, there have been more than 300 dangerous incidents involving big cats since 1990. In the past 10 years, “four children have lost their lives and dozens more have lost limbs or suffered other traumatic injuries. Sixteen adults were killed and dozens were maimed.

Last February, a tiger escaped from a home in Bexar County, Texas, and roamed the neighborhood’s backyards, an event that was captured on video and posted on TikTok. This county has also seen a number of seizures of tigers by law enforcement officials due to illegal ownership.

A tiger living in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, India. Image courtesy of Sarika Khanwilkar.

But the problem of owning domestic tigers is not unique to Texas. In September 2020 in Knoxville, Tennessee, a Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputy spotted a tiger “coming out of the water in the French Broad River, crossing the street, and disappearing into the woods.” In May 2021, global media covered the now infamous week-long incident of a missing tiger in Houston. Although it attracted worldwide attention, its appearance was not very surprising to those who paid attention to tigers in the United States.

The problem goes far beyond just keeping big cats as pets. Animal welfare activists and wildlife trafficking experts say shows like tiger kingthat glorify petting, playing with, feeding, and taking pictures with cubs are driving big cat trafficking, specifically encouraging people to capture big cats from the wild and/or breed them for the purpose of selling cubs.

To date, little research has examined the legal and illegal tiger trade in the United States. Existing research has characterized a high demand for mammals – and in particular for big cat species – drawing attention to 941 seizures in the United States between 2003 and 2012. Estimates indicate that there are as many as 10,000 tigers living in the United States, either in zoos or on private property, nearly double the estimated 4,981 tigers in the wild worldwide.

We wanted to know more and undertook a deeper investigation into these dynamics in the United States looking specifically at international legal and illegal tiger parts entering the country. Our results published in the journal Conservation science and practice indicate that the amount of tiger parts entering the United States is likely much greater than previously reported.

In the United States, people have this misconception that the illegal trade in tiger parts is halfway around the world and only comes from distant lands. In reality, the trade remains global and lucrative, and the United States makes up a large part of it.

Read about: For the Year of the Tiger, a shared vision for the future of the iconic cat

Tiger parts and trophies seized in the United States by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo courtesy of Steve Winter.

Using US federal government records, we have identified a significant number of illegal tiger parts entering the United States. Tigers can also be legally traded internationally as an Appendix I species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) with import and export permits at scientific purposes. , breeding or educational purposes. We reviewed legal import permits for tigers and tiger parts and nearly half were for previously seized or confiscated animals. Records did not indicate whether the legally traded items that were seized or confiscated ultimately came from the wild or from captive-bred tigers. A notable number of legal and illegal imports came from nature.

Our research raises many questions about the demand for tiger parts and the management of captive tigers in the United States. If there was a high demand, which one would assume is based on the number of illegally imported tiger parts, it is possible that this demand was met. by captive tigers born and bred in the United States Today, Asia continues to be the main market for tiger parts and in 2016 a man was arrested for sending tiger skulls and claws from United States to Thailand. A tiger penis itself is worth more than its weight in gold, and an entire tiger can be worth over $350,000. Yet there is currently no way to track captive tigers in the United States, and many states lack laws and procedures to oversee the disposal of valuable tiger parts once those animals die.

What is also lost is that wildlife trafficking has also been linked to national security concerns due to its integration with the trade in narcotics, arms and human beings. Moreover, it continues to threaten the survival of tigers, which now occupy only 5% of their historic range.

The news sounds bad, but there is a way to start getting the problem under control.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act (HR 263 of 117and Congress) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Mike Quigley (D-IL). It revises restrictions on owning and exhibiting big cats – such as lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars or cougars – in the country. A previous version of the bill had been passed in December 2020 in the House by a vote of 272 to 114, but it was not passed by the Senate and died in the 116and Congress.

The current legislation faces a vote in the House and then in the Senate. If passed as a federal bill, it would amend the foundational wildlife trafficking bill – the Lacey Act – clarifying the provisions enacted by the Captive Wildlife Safety Act for the purpose of promote the conservation of big cats and public safety.

See all of Mongabay’s big cat coverage here

A captive tiger. Image by liux2x via Pixabay.

Currently, it is still legal to own a pet tiger in some areas of the United States. For example, 13 states simply require a license for big cats, but three others — Alabama, North Carolina, and Wisconsin — have no big cat breeding laws. pets.

The Cat Public Safety Act would prohibit individuals from owning felines and prohibit the public from petting, playing and feeding them.

By reducing tiger-related tourism activities at unaccredited zoos, which encourage unnecessary tiger breeding in the United States, BCPSA would ensure that the country plays a positive role in global conservation efforts by enacting tiger regulations in captivity. It would also enhance public safety by removing big cats, especially tigers, from the hands of untrained individuals. It’s only a matter of time until the next pet tiger escapes and causes serious injury or death.

To track this bill, contact your representatives or learn more, visit its GovTrack page.


Monique Sosnowski is pursuing a doctorate in criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY.

Sarika Khanwilkar is the founder of Wild Tiger, a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve Indian Bengal tigers and their habitats, and is also pursuing a PhD in ecology from Columbia University’s E3B program.

Related listening: Mongabay’s podcast explores the effect of infrastructure projects on key wildlife like the last remaining Sumatran tigers, listen here:

Quote: Sarika Khanwilkar, Monique Sosnowski, Sharon Guynup (2022). Patterns of illegal and legal tiger parts entering the United States over a decade, 2003-2012. Conservation science and practice.
doi:10.1111/csp2.622

Disclosure: One of the study’s authors, Sharon Guynup, contributed to Mongabay’s reporting on an independent basis.