National rally for Big Cats act set for July 2 in Ohio

There’s not a person living in Ohio, or anywhere else for that matter, who doesn’t remember the night in October 2011 when Terry Thompson of Zanesville released 56 dangerous wild animals before killing himself (see definitive journalism on this event from Esquire, GQ, and Cincinnati Magazine).  Police were forced to shoot almost 50 of the animals, including 38 big cats of which 18 were rare Bengal tigers.

Some of the animals killed in Zanesville on October 18, 2011

48 lions, tigers, bears, wolves and monkeys were killed in Zanesville on October 18, 2011.

On the heels of this tragedy, Ohio passed Senate Bill 310, the Dangerous Wild Animal Act (analysis here), to regulate ownership of dangerous wild animals including big cats, bears, wolves, elephants, rhinos, alligators, great apes, certain monkeys, and certain venomous and constricting snakes (full list here).

Owners were required to register their animals with the state while an advisory board worked with the Ohio Department of Agriculture to create standards for housing and care (draft standards here).  To keep the animals, owners will be required to meet these standards and pay a fee to obtain a permit by January 2014.  Certain facilities such as accredited zoos and sanctuaries are exempt.

A patchwork of state regulations on ownership of big cats.  Source: IFAW

A patchwork of state regulations on ownership of big cats. Source: IFAW

One key provision of the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act bans the buying, selling or trading of dangerous wild animals.  This provision is echoed in a new national bill, H.R. 1998, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, introduced into Congress in May by Reps. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA).

The bill would ban private ownership of big cats except at AZA-accredited zoos, sanctuaries, wildlife rehabilitators, state colleges and universities, and select traveling circuses.  Current owners could keep their big cats so long as they register with the USDA, but breeding would be outlawed except at AZA zoos working under a Species Survival Plan and certain research and educational institutions.

These are the conditions in which big cats were kept at a substandard facility called Great Cats of Indiana before it was finally shut down.

These are the conditions in which big cats were kept at a facility called Great Cats of Indiana before it was finally shut down after years of pressure from local activists.

With states like Ohio cracking down on ownership of dangerous wild animals, why is a federal law needed?  First, several states still have no regulations regarding ownership of big cats, including Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  States have a patchwork of laws ranging from no rules whatsoever to a total ban on ownership of big cats.

No one knows how many big cats are in private hands across the United States, but estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000.  This is more than are left in all of the wild.  The trade in these animals and their body parts has resulted in serious public safety and rampant animal welfare problems.  In the past 21 years, U.S. incidents involving captive big cats have resulted in 22 human deaths, 248 maulings, 260 escapes, 144 big cat deaths and 131 confiscations, according to Big Cat Rescue.

This tiger was kept in this shed for six years at Animal Rescue Kingdom in Ocala, Fla.,

This tiger was kept in a shed for six years at Animal Rescue Kingdom in Ocala, Fla.

Having this many big cats in private hands makes for a regulatory nightmare.  A USDA license is required to exhibit or sell big cats, but the USDA, which is also responsible for thousands of zoos, circuses, breeding operations, and research facilities, does not have enough inspectors to adequately monitor compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.  Nor is a USDA license even required for private pets.

Animal welfare is repeatedly an issue for captive big cats.  It costs $5,000 a year to feed a big cat, and thousands more for housing and veterinary care.  Most people don’t have the knowledge or resources to care for these animals responsibly.  Big cat sanctuaries all have stories of rescuing animals from back yards, basements, tiny transport cages, junkyards, apartments, and other inhumane conditions.

Police came face to face with a tiger kept in an apartment in Harlem.  This tiger is now at Noah's Lost Ark in Ohio.

Police came face to face with a tiger kept in a Harlem apartment. This tiger is now at Noah’s Lost Ark in Ohio.

Tigers are perhaps the biggest issue in captive big cat welfare.  Of the estimated 5,000 tigers in the United States, only 250 (or 5 percent) are in AZA-accredited zoos.  The problem is that the USDA allows for public contact with tigers cubs from 6 weeks to 12 weeks old.  This spurs unscrupulous dealers to breed them in large numbers for petting booths and photo shoots.

Once the cubs get too old, however, there is no place for them to go.  These tigers are rarely bred according to Species Survival Plans, which require that subspecies such as Bengal and Siberian remain intact.  Instead, they are crossbred indiscriminately and so do not contribute to conservation efforts.  Zoos don’t take them, and sanctuaries cannot absorb so many unwanted tigers.

Regrettably in some cases these animals are sold to canned hunting operations, where trophy hunters kill them for a fee, and then their body parts are sold on the black market.  In 2000 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uncovered a ring doing just that through its Operation Snowplow, resulting in indictments of 17 people across three states.  With feeding and housing big cats running in the thousands, but a tiger skin rug selling for over $120,000, these cats are worth far more dead than alive.

Tim Harrison of Outreach for Animals relocated Tasha from an Ohio facility that was closing down to an accredited sanctuary.

Tim Harrison helped to relocate Tasha, a mountain lion, from an Ohio facility that was closing down to an accredited sanctuary. Source: Outreach for Animals

On July 2, the International Fund for Animal Welfare will hold an Ohio Big Cat Forum at 10 a.m. at the Statehouse in Columbus.  Among the speakers will be Tim Harrison, director of Outreach for Animals and a Dayton-based public safety officer at the forefront of rescuing exotic animals across the country.  The event kicks off a national campaign for the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act.

If you live in Ohio and have any interest in exotic animals, especially big cats, I highly recommend you attend this event.  To RSVP and for more information, contact Tracy Coppola at tcoppola@ifaw.org.

Day 20 Swim Report
Number of laps: 45
Time: 85 minutes
Pace: Very slow

I took a day off two days ago due to an inordinately busy schedule and lack of sleep.  Coming back the next day was harder than I thought.  First I went to a community pool where you have to bring your own swim equipment such as kickboard, but I forgot mine.  For some reason laps seemed to take forever.  I slogged it through, and hope today’s work out is a little easier!

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