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Big Cats, Big Trouble

Published 03/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 1, Spring 2004

As API members and supporters, know, we’ve actively campaigned to improve the lives of captive exotic animals for many years. In fact, API is widely recognized as a leading expert on the issue.

Recently, several high-profile incidents involving captive large cats have brought unprecedented public attention to the plight of exotic animals used in performances, put on public display, or kept in private possession. Although attacks by lions, tigers, and other wild animals are unfortunate, they are also perhaps the inevitable result of keeping such animals in captivity. These events also offer advocates the opportunity to make changes that can ensure both animal welfare and human safety.

No Isolated Incidents

There’s no doubt about it: Cats are popular companion animals. To most people, a “pet” cat is a domesticated animal that comes from shelter or rescue group. But for others, a “little kitty” is actually a 500-pound killer.

Across the U.S., thousands of large cats — including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and cougars — are privately held. Some are kept as “pets”; others are exploited in circuses, roadside attractions, magic shows, trade shows, and at fairs. In fact, it is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 tigers in captivity in the United States alone — more than twice the number of tigers left in the wild globally!

Keeping these large “kitties” captive can be dangerous — and even deadly. Last October [2003], three major tiger attacks occurred in the space of less than a week. First, a tiger at the Keepers of the Wild animal sanctuary in Golden Valley, Arizona, bit trainer Sarah Roy as she cleaned the animal’s cage. Then Antoine Yates was attacked by his “pet” tiger, whom Yates kept captive in a New York City apartment. A few days later, Roy Horn, of the performing duo Siegfried and Roy, was mauled by one of his tigers before an audience of 1,500 at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

These three were lucky; they survived their attacks. Ten-year-old Clayton James Eller, of Millers Creek, North Carolina was not so fortunate. In December 2003, the boy was fatally mauled by his aunt’s 400-pound “pet” Bengal tiger. Eller was shoveling snow near the tiger’s cage, an enclosure made of chain link fence with an opening at the bottom. Evidently, Eller came too close to the opening of the cage; the tiger dragged the child underneath the fence and mauled him to death. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, on several previous occasions the tiger had escaped or been let loose from his cage and roamed the neighborhood. After the incident, the tiger was killed. At press time, authorities had not determined whether they would file charges against Eller’s aunt.

Unfortunately, neither Wilkes County (where Eller was killed) nor the state of North Carolina restricts the keeping of exotic animals as “pets.” This tragic incident should serve as a loud wake-up call to North Carolina and other states that still allow individuals to keep large cats as “pets.” Legislators across the country must take steps to prohibit the private possession of wild animals, a practice that is dangerous to humans and cruel to the animals.

Attacks involving large cats and humans are not rare occurrences; since 1990, more than 150 incidents have been reported in the U.S. in which captive large cats have bitten, scratched, or killed people.

Clearly, captive cats pose a serious threat to public safety. John Wright, a professor of psychology and a certified animal behaviorist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, told the Washington Post that while “the genes that contribute to normal behaviors in tigers have been tamed in your [domestic] cat,” attempts to “tame” larger felines, whether for private possession or for performance, have failed. Wright said of large cats, “There is a genetic history that has been adaptive for them in the wild which suggests when there is a chance to establish a predator-prey relationship [they] do so.”

It’s not just vulnerable, small children who become prey; even “expert” trainers are at risk. If Roy Horn, who has more than four decades of experience handling tigers, can be attacked, then no one is safe. In a matter of seconds, any captive large cat can return to — and act out on — his or her natural instincts. As long as people insist on keeping wild animals captive, forcing them to perform unnatural behaviors, and live in confined spaces, both the animals and those who profess to adore them are in danger.

A Call to Action

Last fall’s attacks brought unprecedented public attention to the issue of captive cats — and have given strength to API’s efforts to protect public safety and end the suffering of wild animals held in captivity. There has never been a better time to work toward local and statewide bans on the private possession of large felines. These cats (as well as other dangerous wild animals) are being freely bred and sold on the open market and are readily available to individuals who lack the expertise, facilities, and finances to care for them properly.

The trade in exotic animals is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, of which large felines are a part. Every year, hundreds of big cats enter the exotic animal trade from a variety of sources. Some are “surplus” from various roadside menageries; some are sold at auctions, pet stores, through the Animal Finders’ Guide, or over the Internet; others come from backyard breeding facilities similar to “puppy mills.” Tigers, for example, reproduce easily and can be purchased for as little as $300 — less than the cost of a typical purebred dog.

People who breed and publicly exhibit large cats often attempt to legitimize their actions by claiming that they are saving species from extinction. This is disingenuous, however, as animals are not bred for release into the wild, and no evidence suggests that individuals viewing large cats in zoos, circuses, or a person’s backyard are particularly interested in the animal’s population status or what steps are being taken to ensure the animal’s survival in the wild. More often, the “conservation” or “education” claims are merely veiled attempts to justify the exploitation of exotic species for commercial gain.

In order to protect both humans and animals, we must put a stop to the breeding, bartering, sale, and possession of large cats for profit and amusement, and to teach the public that these animals belong in the wild, not in cages. We also urgently need laws that address this critical issue.

Unfortunately, current U.S. laws provide minimal protection to large cats. Very few federal laws address the possession and display of captive wild animal, and none outright prohibit these practices. Instead, a patchwork of state and local laws addresses the issue.

State governments have taken the lead in regulating the sale, possession, and use of captive wild animals in the U.S. The majority of states have laws regulating the private possession and public display of these animals. Laws vary in the type of regulation imposed; some states require licenses, others have statutory prohibitions, while others remain essentially unregulated. In addition, laws differ as to what specific animals they cover.

With respect to the private possession of large cats in the U.S., 20 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming) prohibit them from being kept as “pets.” Fourteen states (Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas) require the possessor of a big cat to obtain a license or permit from the relevant state agency. The remaining states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Washington, West Virgina, Wisconsin) have no laws governing the keeping of large cats.

To date, no state has passed legislation prohibiting large cats from being publicly displayed or from performing within its borders; such prohibitions have traditionally been addressed at the local level. At press time, 27 cities and counties have adopted ordinances prohibiting the display of large cats in the U.S.

API Takes Aim

API is actively working with lawmakers and concerned citizens to make significant changes in the way large cats are treated. One of our key strategies is to write and introduce legislation in states that do not currently have prohibitions on the private possession or public display of captive wild animals.

During the 2004 legislative session, API will focus our efforts on three states — North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington — where we will work to pass laws prohibiting the future private possession of the most dangerous exotic animals, such as large cats, bears, wolves, non-human primates, and venomous reptiles. We will also be advocating for legislation in California that would severely limit public display of large cats. Further, this bill will require that a determinate amount of money be deposited into an Animal Trust Fund to assist retiring, abused, or neglected exotic animals. Fund revenues would be distributed via grants to eligible individuals, shelters, or humane societies that can provide a suitable environment for the animals.

API will be active in this issue on a local level, as well. For example, we are currently working on ordinances restricting the private possession and public display of wild animals in Green Bay, Wisconsin and Davidson County, North Carolina. In addition, we have approached supervisors in Wilkes County, North Carolina — where young Clayton Eller died — and are urging them to pass laws to prevent future similar tragedies in the community. Copies of our model state legislation and local ordinances regarding captive exotic animals are available on this website.

If API is to end the suffering of captive animals, we need your help. Get involved with our exotic animal campaign today! Find out about your local and state regulations, and urge lawmakers to do more to protect both animal well-being and public safety. Educate others about the cruelties involved with keeping animals in captivity. By working together, we can make a real difference for the thousands of wild animals doomed to life behind bars.

A version of this article previously appeared in Satya magazine, Jan./Feb. 2004.

Selected 2003 Incidents Involving Large Cats in the U.S.

  • 12/15/03 - Millers Creek, NC
    A 10-year old boy is fatally mauled to death by his aunt’s “pet” tiger.
  • 10/26/03 - Mauldin, SC
    Residents report at least eight sightings of what appears to be a mountain lion, who officials believe is an escaped “pet.”
  • 10/14/03 - Northampton Township, PA
    Several residents see a large cat roaming the area. The animal is thought to be someone’s “pet” turned loose.
  • 10/12/03 - Girard Township, PA
    A woman captured on video camera what appears to be either a black panther or a cougar in Girard Borough Park. The animal is likely someone’s “pet.”
  • 10/06/03 - Golden Valley, AZ
    A tiger at an animal sanctuary bites an employee, who is hospitalized for five days.
  • 10/04/03 - Harlem, NY
    A Bengal tiger bites his possessor on the arm, sending the man to the hospital. The tiger was confiscated from the apartment along with a “pet” alligator.
  • 10/03/03 - Las Vegas, NV
    During a magic show at the Mirage hotel-casino, a white tiger mauls Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy in front of an audience of 1,500.
  • 09/16/03 - Van Buren Township, MI
    A cougar is spotted roaming a wooded area in the township. The cat is believed to be an escaped or abandoned “pet.”
  • 08/20/03 - Whetstone Township, OH
    A “pet” mountain lion escapes from his home and attacks a dog.
  • 08/14/03 - St. Louis, MO
    A female cheetah at the St. Louis Zoo uses vines to escape her enclosure. She is soon recaptured.
  • 08/05/03 - Milwaukee, WI
    During performance at the UniverSoul Circus, Siberian tigers take several threatening swipes at a trainer.
  • Summer 2003 - Maui, HI
    A large cat, suspected to be a leopard, jaguar, or a cougar, has been spotted several times on the island.
  • 07/03/03 - La Crosse, WI
    During a performance at Riverfest, a tiger claws his trainer.
  • 06/30/03 - Calhan, CO
    Employee is seriously mauled by two tigers while cleaning their cage at Big Cats of Serenity Springs wildlife refuge in El Paso County. Both tigers are killed.
  • 06/29/03 - Deerfield Township, OH
    A “pet” lion is seen in a suburban area.
  • 06/23/03 - Crossett, AR
    A firefighter is bitten by a tiger at the Crossett Zoo.
  • 06/03/03 - Red Wing, MN
    A Siberian tiger is euthanized after attacking three people.
  • 05/08/03 - Indiana
    A wild cat, who police suspect escaped from private possession, attacks a woman in a parked car.
  • 04/02/03 - Adair, OK
    A tiger fatally attacks a volunteer handler at Safari Joe’s Rock Creek Exotic Animal Park.
  • 03/31/03 - Hennepin, IL
    The owner of Second Nature Exotic Cats Sanctuary is killed by tiger who he let loose from a penned enclosure.
  • 03/23/03 - Sacramento, CA
    A Sumatran tiger at the Sacramento Zoo attacks a zookeeper during feeding.
  • 03/18/03 - 20th Century Fox television lot
    A trained mountain lion bites an actress on the set of the television series 24.
  • 02/03/03 - Jacksonville, FL
    A Bengal tiger with UniverSoul Circus escapes from cage, startling hundreds of people before he is recaptured.
  • 01/06/03 - Laurens County, SC
    A “pet” cougar escapes from a family’s backyard and roams through a neighborhood.

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