Remember March 2020, when we were all stuck inside watching a kooky gay big cat owner do battle with another kooky tiger-print-wearing big cat sanctuary owner? One of those catty characters just scored a big win in Washington.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed into law H.R. 263, known as the “Big Cat Public Safety Act,” which puts a slew of new amendments on an older law that regulates wildlife trafficking. The legislation bans private citizens from breeding, purchasing, and transporting big cats, mandates owners register animals they already own, effectively phasing out private ownership of big cats. The bill, which unanimously passed the Senate earlier this month, also restricts public contact with six species: lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, snow leopards, and jaguars.
The bill’s journey has been a long, odd one, and was partially documented in the hit 2020 Netflix miniseries “Tiger King.” Carole Baskin, the owner of a Tampa-based big cat sanctuary and an animal rights activist, was one of the key advocates for the bill’s passage. In the series, Baskin was filmed traveling to Congress to lobby for the rights of big cats, wearing her signature animal print clothing.
The Netflix show focused on the rivalry between Baskin and Joseph Maldonado-Passage, otherwise known as Joe Exotic, who owned an animal park in Oklahoma that Baskin alleged exploited and abused big cats. In response to Baskin’s allegations about the welfare of his animals, Maldonado-Passage made claims in the documentary that Baskin had fed the body of her former husband to the cats on her property.
The types of facilities that the law will be the most damaging to—roadside zoos and other small, private animal parks that encourage petting cubs—are, like the cats they house, endangered. Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, told E&E News that the number of these types of establishments is already much smaller than when the first version of the bill was introduced more than a decade ago. Back then, Irby said, there were more than 60 cub-petting establishments across the country; now, the number is in the single digits.
“Public awareness has shut down most of them already, and Covid had an impact on closing a few of them, as well,” Irby told E&E.
Cub petting and cubs used for photo opportunities are considered the most damaging practices to encourage breeding and selling big cats, since the babies quickly mature past the age when it is safe to interact with them—and become less valuable as they age and get larger. There are around 340 facilities in the country that have licenses to breed and show big cats; these facilities will have to implement a 15-foot barrier between the public and the cats moving forward.
At the end of the Netflix series, Maldonado-Passage was charged with hiring two men to murder Baskin and was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison in 2019. Since the series’s end, Baskin has been on its subsequent series as well as “Dancing with the Stars” and has given generously to political candidates across both parties. In a video posted to Facebook earlier this month celebrating the bill’s passage out of the Senate, Baskin, sitting in front of a tiger-striped and leopard-spotted curtain, said her years of advocacy for this legislation had made her the target of “narcissistic, abusive, dangerous men” involved in the big cat trade.
“I am thankful that apparently, I am harder to intimidate and kill than some thought!” she said.