Senate Passes Bill to Ban Most Big Cat Ownership

Big Cat Public Safety Act would limit who can breed, buy, sell or transport the animals.

Tiger cub on a leash
Wolfgang_Steiner / Getty Images

Legislation banning most contact and ownership of big cats was passed by the U.S. Senate this week. Now it heads to the desk of President Joe Biden, who has suggested support for the bill in the past.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act passed the Senate by unanimous vote. The legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July by a 272-114 vote with 44 members abstaining.

The bill limits who would be able to sell, transport, buy, or breed big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, jaguars, cougars, or hybrids of those species.

The most well-known advocate for the legislation was Carole Baskin, the founder and CEO of Florida rescue facility Big Cat Rescue who appeared in the Netflix series “Tiger King.”

"This bill has been the number one goal of my thirty years of advocacy to stop the mistreatment of big cats," Baskin posted on Facebook. "The passage of the bill is the successful culmination of 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."

With the legislation, most people will not be able to own big cats. Ownership would be limited to wildlife sanctuaries, state-licensed veterinarians, colleges and universities, facilities with a specific license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a few other groups.

Existing facilities would be allowed to keep their big cats as long as they register them with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, don't breed them, and don't allow any contact between the animals and the public.

There are as many as 10,000 big cats in captivity in the U.S., according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The group points out that there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild.

Animal Groups Respond

More than 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have happened in 46 states and the District of Columbia since 1990, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Five children and 19 adults have been killed in encounters with the animals.

Animal rights groups were upbeat in response to the passage.

“With the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, Congress has sent a global message that the US stands firmly against wildlife crime and on the side of tiger conservation. Once signed into law, this legislation will provide stringent protections and oversight for captive tigers and other big cats, as well as the communities in which they are being held,” said Leigh Henry, director, wildlife policy for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in a statement.

“The US is home to thousands of captive tigers and there is little accounting for these animals, meaning they could easily slip off the radar and into black markets due to a lack of information available. By requiring a federal permit for big cat ownership, we’ll have a better understanding of the state of captive tigers and what happens to their valuable parts when they die.”

“An extraordinarily cruel era for big cats in the U.S. finally comes to an end with the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. We’ve been fighting for this moment for years because so many so-called ‘Tiger Kings’ have been breeding tigers and other big cats to use them for profit,” said Kitty Block, president and CEO of the HSUS.

“And once the cubs grow too large for cub-petting or selfies, these poor animals get dumped at roadside zoos or passed into the pet trade, which is not only a terrible wrong for the animals, but also a threat to public safety. Now that the Big Cat Public Safety Act will become law, it’s the beginning of the end of the big cat crisis in the U.S.”