Guest Columnist

'Tiger King' shows why a federal big cat law is needed

Some of Iowa's federal lawmakers are co-sponsoring the Big Cat Public Safety Act

Joe Exotic on #x201c;Tiger King.#x201d; MUST CREDIT: Netflix
Joe Exotic on “Tiger King.” MUST CREDIT: Netflix

The Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” has grabbed the attention of many Iowans as we look for ways to occupy ourselves during the global crisis surrounding COVID-19. Countless tweets and other social media posts have raved about the docuseries being “shocking,” “crazy” and “addicting.” “Tiger King” features several roadside zoos that house big cats and other wild animals in substandard conditions. Unfortunately, the show chose to sensationalize the personalities of the zoos’ owners — especially Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic) — instead of the immense suffering inflicted on their animals.

The producers of this series missed a huge opportunity by not emphasizing the need for the Big Cat Public Safety Act (S. 2561 and H.R. 1380). This federal bill would prohibit exhibitors from using big cat cubs for the public to hold, pet, and take “selfies” with. It’s a cruel practice that fuels widespread abuse of these animals and has created an overpopulation of captive big cats. Roadside zoos breed big cats to use the cubs for interactive encounters with paying visitors. The cubs are taken from their mothers as newborns, depriving them of proper maternal care and harming their development. After just a few months, the cubs are too big to be easily handled, so they are warehoused in substandard menageries, kept as pets in backyards or basements, or killed. To maintain the cash flow from public contact activities, new cubs are produced to replace the ones that age out, resulting in a cycle of big cats being born, used for public contact encounters, and cruelly disposed of.

One of the menageries where excess tigers and other big cats ended up was Cricket Hollow Animal Park near Manchester before it was forced to shut down last year.

The bill would also prohibit individuals from possessing big cats such as tigers, lions, and leopards as pets. Since 1990, there have been at least 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats in the United States. Five children and 19 adults have been killed, and hundreds of others have lost limbs or suffered other often-traumatic injuries. In 2007, a pet tiger in New Hampton escaped from a cage, attacked and mauled the family’s dog. A sheriff’s deputy shot and killed the tiger to protect public safety.

These big cats are dangerous for members of the public who patronize these businesses or keep big cats as pets. They also pose a threat to first responders. In 2011, dozens of big cats and other wild animals were released by a man in Zanesville, Ohio. The first responders who resolved the situation were in grave danger, as was the public. Incidents like this are why the Big Cat Public Safety Act is endorsed by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.

Passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act will prioritize the safety of the public and the well-being of big cats in the United States. Please contact U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst to ask them to co-sponsor S. 2561, the Senate version of the bill. Several members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation, including Reps. Dave Loebsack, Cindy Axne, and Abby Finkenauer, are co-sponsors of the U.S. House version. Rep. Steve King has yet to co-sponsor. With your help, we can put an end to the horrific abuse of big cats that the roadside zoo owners in “Tiger King” rely on to make a profit.

Preston Moore is the Iowa state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

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