Animal Activists Cautiously Celebrate as Federal Government Cracks Down on “Tiger Kings”

Image: Screenshot Netflix Tiger King trailer

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

When quarantine began, many of us were hooked on two things: Animal Crossing and Tiger King. Now, thanks to the hit Netflix docuseries, the federal government and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are having an animal crossover all their own. PETA hopes to use a series of lawsuits against privately-owned tiger and “exotic” animal “zoos” to set a precedent under the Endangered Species Act. If successful, exhibitors that harm endangered species held in captivity would be subject to federal enforcement actions.

Why This Matters: There is currently no federal law preventing the ownership of wildlife, endangered or otherwise. Local laws vary state by state; some have no laws, others require permits, and some have banned “exotic” animal ownership altogether. No public agency exists to track these animals and they may be killed and harvested for their pelts, teeth, and bones which are then sold illegally. So many tigers in the U.S. are subjected to mistreatment, abuse, and neglect, that harms not only the health and safety of the animals but of humans patronizing private zoos.  And there are more in captivity in substandard care in the U.S. than exist in the wild globally.

Tightening Security

There’s already precedent for using the Endangered Species and Animal Welfare Acts to protect these captive creatures.

  • Tiger King’s Doc Antle was found guilty of two felonies and charged with 13 misdemeanors under the Animal Welfare Act.
  • The titular Tiger King, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act by killing tigers.

Two other “wildlife park” operators, Jeffrey Lowe and Timothy Stark were forced to surrender all big cat cubs and mothers pending a lawsuit decision filed against them by PETA. The organization says this case is a turning point for federal involvement in wildlife abuse; it’s the first time the Department of Justice has gone after an animal exhibitor in a civil court for violating these two acts. PETA and other organizations hope that these wins will de-incentivize big cat trade, but say that there’s still more that the government can do.

In 2016, the federal government banned interstate tiger trading “unless the seller acquires a permit and can demonstrate the transaction would contribute to tiger conservation.” A rule under the Animal Welfare Act also banned human interaction with tiger cubs from 8-12 weeks of age, the age at which most “exotic” zoos will use tigers for human encounters. But organizations like the WWF are urging the federal government to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bipartisan bill that would require federal permits for all big cat ownership and entirely ban public encounters with cubs. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Act would “[reduce] the risk of tiger parts from the US entering the illegal wildlife trade, [remove] the strongest incentive for breeding, and also [improve] public safety and animal welfare.”

Even so, experts say that for any of these acts to successfully protect wildlife, they have to be enforced properly by the federal government. Already, the USDA holds the right to take legal action against licensed facilities that mistreat animals under the Animal Welfare Act, but Daniel Waltz, a senior staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, explains, “as the USDA active licensee list shows, there is an overwhelming number of exhibitors. The enforcement action list is far too short.”

By The Numbers

According to NPR, very few — less than 5% – or fewer than 350 – of tigers in captivity are managed through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization that serves as an accrediting body in the U.S. that ensures that these zoos meet at least the standards of animal care required by law.  No one knows for sure how many other tigers there are in the U.S. in private hands but, the best guess is around 10,000 in the U.S.  By comparison, there are fewer than 4,000 tigers in the wild – down from 100,000 a century ago.

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