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Anna Karamazina

26.11.2022 15:00

'Tiger King'-like attractions prohibited by big cat safety legislation

President Joe Biden signed enhanced big cat protections into law as part of the Tiger King's legacy.

From now on, some animal owners will require federal licensing. Some staff at the Interior Department will begin working on new regulations. A popular but inappropriate attraction will be removed from certain roadside zoos. According to Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, all cub petting activities will cease immediately.

The "Big Cat Public Safety Act," signed by Biden without much fanfare after a multiyear Capitol Hill journey spurred at parts by the gaudy antics featured in the 2020 Netflix series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness," will include numerous repercussions.

The program covered the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma and its previous owner, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as "Joe Exotic," who is presently serving a murder-for-hire sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth (E&E Daily, May 13).

The new regulation, introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), is aimed in part at the type of roadside enterprise that provides personal access to large beasts. Irby estimated that there are presently less than a half-dozen such businesses that earn from allowing customers to touch lion and tiger cubs.

This is a significant decrease from the 60-plus cub-petting enterprises that Irby stated existed when the initial iteration of the large cat protection policy was enacted 11 years ago.

Public awareness has already shut down most of them, and Covid has also had an affect on stopping a handful of them, Irby added.

Owners of tigers, lions, and other big cats will now be required to register their animals with the Fish and Wildlife Service. This is meant to help law enforcement officials and other emergency responders in the case of a zoo escape or other similar incident.

Legislators seek to avoid a repetition of what happened in 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio, when an exotic animal collector released more than 50 animals from his property, including 38 tigers, lions, and cougars. Law enforcement personnel, caught off guard, shot and killed the wandering large cats.

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz, whose department reacted to the incident, testified in a House hearing last May that their work necessitates preparation for unexpected and frequently dangerous events. “However, my colleagues and I should not be faced with the dangers of big cats kept in unqualified hands, nor should our communities.”

The law is supported by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Animal Wellness Action, the Humane Society of the United States, and other institutions.

With a few exceptions, approximately 340 public and private establishments that presently have Agriculture Department permits to own, show, and breed big cats will be prohibited from permitting public interaction with the animals.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare's Carson Barylak, campaigns manager, stated that the now-prohibited direct contact displays "incentivize speed-breeding and drive the 'pet' trade" since cubs are often desirable for such a short period of their life.

Accordin to Barylak, the cub handling prohibition will tackle a number of the most egregious cruelty and aid in the cessation of haphazard and relentless breeding of exotic felines.

Exhibitors will have to either stop permitting animal interaction or create a 15-foot safety buffer. The same regulation will apply to establishments that organize or participate in special fundraising activities that allow for some type of animal interaction.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, there are around 150 of these latter organizations.

"CBO expects that prohibiting contact with the cats, or keeping the 15-foot gap, would decrease the financial success of these events," the nonpartisan office concluded in its review of the legislation.

The budget office estimated that restricting or regulating these activities would cost around $80 million per year in lost income. However, the analysts emphasized that they needed evidence on licensed exhibitors' ability to fulfill the new setback and barrier standards.

The new law was also praised by Carole Baskin, CEO of the Florida-based Big Cat Rescue and the suspected target of Maldonado Passage's murder-for-hire Maldonado-Passage's conspiracy.

As per Baskin's statement, this measure has been the primary focus of their thirty years of campaigning to end the exploitation of huge animals.

The bill's implementation regulations, including the cost of registering the animals, must be devised, and the total number of animals that must be registered is unclear. However, based on information from animal welfare organizations, CBO anticipates that the overall expenses will be low.

According to sources familiar with the matter, over 200 cubs are exchanged or sold each year at a price of around $8,000 per animal; many of those cubs are born at establishments that wouldn't be able to continue breeding large cats anymore.

Maldonado-Passage, now 59, is requesting a new trial, stating that there was "clear evidence of entrapment, government misconduct, criminal activity [and] perjury," among other things, in a June court motion.

Following a line-by-line refutation of the numerous accusations, prosecutors argued that a "defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one, for there are no perfect trials," and that "Mr. Maldonado-Passage received just that — a fair trial."

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