Private ownership of big cat species entered popular consciousness during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic thanks, in large part, to Netflix’s docuseries The Tiger King. Riding a wave of popular interest and support, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, or BCPSA, was recently signed by US President Biden and attempts to prohibit unlicensed private owners from keeping certain big cat species.
What is the problem with private ownership of big cats?
The issues associated with private ownership of big cats have been well-documented. Regarding animal welfare concerns, captive big cats have been overbred, inbred, and cross bred to the extent that the animals suffer serious health issues and their genetics are compromised to such a degree that the animals have no conservation value whatsoever. This is, interestingly, why some big cat sanctuaries sterilise all of their residents.
Captive big cats are continuously bred because cubs and kittens are a hot commodity; there is an entire, incredibly profitable, global industry dedicated to ensuring that you get the perfect selfie with a tiger, lion, or cheetah cub. The cubs are separated from their mother at an incredibly early age and are handled continuously by untrained visitors. As a result of this separation and handling, the animals suffer physical and psychological distress and the welfare of both the cubs and mother is seriously compromised.
After a few short months the cubs will have grown to an unmanageable size and are subsequently sold to other private owners, roadside zoos, or circuses via the exotic pet trade. The complex welfare needs of animals such as lions, tigers, and cheetahs cannot be met by private individuals and as a result the animal is likely to suffer physically and mentally until its death. Indeed, even AZA accredited zoos cannot meet the complex welfare needs of these animals.
Big cats are not the only individuals suffering as a direct result of their captivity as these animals pose a serious risk to public safety, however. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, there have been “at least 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats” since 1990 in the United States alone including the killing of 5 children and 20 adults.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act
Signed into law on December 20, 2022, the Big Cat Public Safety Act bans private ownership of select species by individuals or entities which are not specifically licensed by the US Department of Agriculture to keep and exhibit such cats. The introduction of the BCPSA does not end captivity for big cats but instead ends the captivity of big cats by unlicensed entities such as roadside zoos, circuses, and private owners. Unlicensed entities which currently own big cats can keep their animals for the remainder of the animals’ lives but need to register each animal with their local authorities.
The BCPSA prohibits current and future owners of big cats from exposing the cats to the public and, as a result, public interactions such as photo opportunities, cub handling, and petting are banned. Unlicensed private entities are also banned from owning, breeding, importing, exporting, buying, or selling big cats. This piece of legislation has some serious teeth as anyone found in violation of the BCPSA may be fined up to $20,000 and imprisoned for up to 5 years.
BCPSA found bipartisan support throughout its legislative journey, a relative rarity in the United States. The BCPSA’s passage was celebrated by politicians, NGOs, campaigners, and journalists, but there has been relatively little critique of the BCPSA.
The BCPSA: it could have been so much better
While the BCPSA is undoubtedly a step forward in improving American animal welfare legislation, the Act could have done more to effectively protect more big cat species.
The BCPSA is a piece of negative list legislation; such legislation is species-specific and, in the case of regulations governing private ownership of animals, bans certain species from being kept. Positive list legislation on the other hand lists the species, genus, or family which can be kept by private owners.
The BCPSA is a perfect example of why negative list legislation is much weaker than positive list legislation. The only species of big cat protected by the BCPSA are those listed in the Act, namely: “species of lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, or cougar or any hybrid of such species”. The result is that many other big cat species, which are also kept by unlicensed private owners, are left totally unprotected by the Act. Some of these unprotected species include: bobcats, lynx, servals, jungle cats, ocelots, caracals, Pallas’s Cats (who have recently gone viral for their tail-sitting behaviour and become sought-after pets), and hybrids of these species.
It is entirely possible that, following the implementation of the BCPSA, the unlicensed private owners who were impacted by the Act will simply “downgrade” to smaller species of big cats. Judging by the immense popularity of social media images and videos featuring pet caracals, bobcats, lynx, ocelots, and other big cats, there is potential consumer demand for interactions with these animals.
If the BCPSA had instead been based on a positive list legislation model it would have listed the cat species which private owners could keep. As a result, all other unlisted big cat species would have been protected and there would have been no need for any future revisions to add new species to the list. Essentially, it would have been more effective and efficient legislation.
Are big cats better protected in Ireland?
Ireland does not currently have any legislation – positive or negative – governing the exotic pet trade or the keeping of exotic, dangerous, or large pets. There is also no governmental system in place which requires the owners of such animals to register with their local authority, such as the UK’s Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. As a result, in Ireland there is no way to know what animals are being kept as pets, who owns them, and where they reside and, crucially, the welfare status of such animals remains a mystery.
However, change could be on the horizon as there has been a recent push for an EU-wide positive list, a position which was supported by 19 Member States at the EU AGRIFISH meeting in May (interestingly, Ireland was one of a small handful of Member States which did not vocalise support). An EU-wide positive list would disrupt the exotic pet trade and put an end to the private ownership of big cats across the EU, including Ireland, without the species-specific loopholes of the BCPSA. Big cats of all species deserve protection from the cruelty and callous, capitalistic disregard of the exotic pet trade – it is time for Ireland to support an EU-wide positive list and take a positive step forward for big cats.