Can You Legally Own Big Cats In The Us?

Introduction

The topic of owning big cats like tigers, lions, and cougars as pets in the United States has become an increasingly controversial issue in recent years. Stories of backyard menageries and roadside zoos have captivated the public’s interest, while shocking incidents involving big cat attacks or escapes have raised serious concerns for public safety. Though they may seem like exciting exotic pets, big cats are still fundamentally wild animals unsuited for domestic life. Understanding the complex legal landscape around big cat ownership and the practical reasons to heavily restrict it can provide helpful context around this unique phenomenon in America.

Definition of Big Cats

Big cats are usually defined as the four largest members of the panthera genus – lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. These apex predators are characterized by their ability to roar, powerful jaws, and retractable claws. Other key identifying features include a short face, round pupils, stripped or dotted coat patterns, and a long tail used for balance.[1]

Though there is some debate, pumas and cheetahs are generally not classified as big cats. This is because they lack the ability to roar and do not have fully retractable claws. Snow leopards are sometimes considered big cats despite their inability to roar due to their close relation to other panthera species like leopards.[2]

There are eight extant species of big cat, including two tiger subspecies, the Bengal tiger and Siberian tiger. Sadly, three species – the Barbary lion, Javan tiger, and South China tiger – have gone extinct within the past century due to hunting and habitat loss.

While they were once found across Africa, Asia, and the Americas, big cat ranges have diminished significantly. Improved legal protections and conservation efforts in recent decades have helped populations stabilize and even recover in some areas.

[1] https://www.kidscreativechaos.com/2012/11/ringling-bros-barnum-and-bailey-dragons.html
[2] https://www.kidscreativechaos.com/search?updated-max=2012-12-16T01:00:00-05:00&max-results=20&reverse-paginate=true&m=0

US Federal Laws

The most notable federal law regulating the ownership of big cats is the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA). The BCPSA was signed into law in December 2022 and aims to prohibit the private possession and breeding of big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, cougars, and jaguars. The law builds upon the Captive Wildlife Safety Act passed in 2003, which banned interstate transportation and commerce of big cats for the pet trade but had loopholes that allowed private ownership to continue.

Under the BCPSA, private individuals can no longer acquire big cats after the law’s enactment. Current owners can keep their animals if they register with the US Department of Agriculture by June 18, 2023. However, they cannot breed, acquire, or sell big cats across state lines. Sanctuaries and facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are exempt. Violators face penalties of up to $20,000 and/or up to 5 years in prison.

Other federal laws that impact big cat ownership include the Endangered Species Act, which protects species like tigers, as well as the Animal Welfare Act which sets basic standards for animal care and housing. However, these laws still allowed private ownership despite concerns about public safety and animal welfare (https://bigcatrescue.org/state-laws-exotic-cats/). The BCPSA addresses these loopholes more comprehensively at the federal level.

State Laws

There is a patchwork of state laws regarding the private ownership of big cats in the United States. Some states prohibit private ownership entirely, while others require permits or licenses. According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University’s College of Law, as of 2013 there were 21 states that completely banned private ownership of big cats, 17 states that allowed ownership with a license or permit, and 12 states with no laws regulating private big cat ownership.

Some of the strictest laws are in California, where private ownership of big cats is prohibited. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “California has some of the strictest laws in the nation to protect people and to protect animals from being exploited in the pet trade.”

On the other end of the spectrum, states like Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have no laws prohibiting or regulating the private ownership of dangerous exotic animals like big cats. However, many individual municipalities within these states have enacted local bans.

Most Midwestern and Plains states allow ownership with a permit, including Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Montana. States like Texas, Ohio, and Michigan have laws banning private big cat ownership but exempt accredited zoos and sanctuaries.

According to the Born Free USA nonprofit organization, the number of states banning or strictly regulating big cat ownership has increased dramatically over the past couple decades, from just 6 states in 1993 to 38 states as of 2020. Born Free notes this is likely due to increased awareness of public safety risks and animal welfare concerns.

Public Safety Issues

Big cats like tigers, lions, leopards, and jaguars are extremely dangerous animals that pose significant public safety risks when kept as pets or for exhibition (FWS, 2022). These large carnivores have powerful bites and sharp claws that can easily kill or seriously injure humans. According to the World Wildlife Fund, big cats have attacked at least 275 people in the U.S. since 1990 (BBC, 2022). Many incidents involve untrained civilians being mauled while trying to handle or pose with big cats.

Even licensed facilities like zoos and sanctuaries have had dangerous incidents with big cat attacks and escapes. Private ownership poses even greater risks, as facilities often lack proper caging, safety protocols, and expertise in handling these wild animals. Big cats kept as pets have escaped and attacked neighbors, meter readers, and first responders coming onto properties. Their strength and predatory instincts make them unpredictable and unsafe around humans.

Restricting private ownership and breeding of big cats protects public health and safety. Proper regulation ensures these apex predators are only handled by qualified experts, not untrained individuals who lack the resources and knowledge to safely contain them.

Animal Welfare Concerns

Keeping big cats like lions, tigers, and other exotic felines as pets or for exhibition often leads to major animal welfare issues. Big cats have very specific nutritional, enrichment, and habitat needs that are difficult to meet in captivity, especially in a private setting.

Some of the main animal welfare concerns with private ownership of big cats include:

  • Inadequate diet – Big cats require nutrient-dense, raw meat diets to thrive. Many captive big cats are fed improper diets lacking essential nutrients.
  • Lack of space – Big cats range widely in the wild. Most captive enclosures do not provide enough room for natural roaming and exercise.
  • Lack of enrichment – Captive big cats need environmental enrichment to engage their natural behaviors and prevent stress. This is often overlooked in private settings.
  • Lack of veterinary care – Big cats require specialized veterinary care, which is costly and may be skipped by private owners.
  • Premature maternal separation – Big cat cubs are often prematurely removed from their mothers to be used for public interaction.
  • Improper social groups – Big cats have complex social needs. Group housing mismatches can lead to stress and fights.

These welfare issues lead to physical and psychological health problems in captive exotic cats. Responsible sanctuaries aim to provide more naturalistic habitats and specialized care.

Regulation of Breeders/Sellers

There is limited federal regulation of exotic cat breeders and sellers. The USDA only requires a license to breed, deal, or exhibit exotic cats if doing so commercially, selling across state lines, or exhibiting publicly. However, the Big Cat Public Safety Act bans private ownership and breeding of big cats like lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, or any hybrids, with limited exceptions.

Regulation varies widely by state. Some states like Texas have no laws regulating ownership or breeding of exotic cats. Other states like California prohibit breeding big cats without a permit. Few states limit the number of big cats a facility can have. USDA licensed facilities self-report on animal inventory and are not regularly inspected. There is growing advocacy for increased oversight and regulation of exotic cat breeders and sellers.

Owning Big Cats in Sanctuaries

Due to the public safety risks and animal welfare concerns around private ownership of big cats, accredited sanctuaries can provide a humane alternative for these wild animals. There are several true big cat sanctuaries in the US that are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and provide lifetime care for rescued big cats. These include:

Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida (https://bigcatrescue.org/). This sanctuary provides a natural enclosed habitat for tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, and other large wild cats that have been rescued from exploitative situations.

Carolina Tiger Rescue in North Carolina (https://carolinatigerrescue.org/). This sanctuary offers a safe haven to wild cats in need while educating the public about exotic animals and Wildlife trafficking issues.

The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota (https://wildcatridgesanctuary.org/). This nonprofit sanctuary provides lifetime refuge for previously abused, abandoned, or exploited captive wild cats.

These accredited sanctuaries have the expertise and facilities to properly care for big cats while giving them spacious natural habitats. They offer an alternative for those who want to responsibly surrender a big cat that was acquired without full awareness of the challenges of providing lifetime care.

Notable Incidents

There have been numerous incidents involving injuries, escapes, and other safety issues when it comes to privately owned big cats in the US. In 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio, a man released over 50 exotic animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers, before dying by suicide. Police were forced to kill dozens of the animals, raising concerns about the threat to public safety from unregulated private ownership of dangerous animals (source).

In 2019, a Malayan tiger escaped from an enclosure at a Kansas zoo, injuring a man and killing a zookeeper before being shot by police (source). The same year, a 75-year old woman in Arkansas was attacked and injured by her pet African lion when she entered its enclosure to feed it (source).

The Netflix documentary series Tiger King highlighted the poor conditions and lack of oversight at many private tiger breeding facilities, as well as unsafe practices by their owners. The main figure, Joe Exotic, was convicted and jailed for a murder-for-hire plot related to conflicts in the big cat breeding industry. The series brought renewed public attention to the need for better regulation of exotic pet ownership (source).

These incidents show the very real dangers posed by keeping apex predators like tigers, lions, and leopards in private ownership, where facilities often lack proper safety measures, training, and oversight. Stricter regulation and prohibiting new ownership has been proposed as necessary to protect animal welfare and public safety.

Conclusions

In summary, owning big cats as pets is very restricted in the United States. At the federal level, the Big Cat Public Safety Act was recently passed in 2022 to prohibit private ownership of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, and more. While some states do allow certain exotic big cats under permit, regulations are increasing to protect public safety and animal welfare.

The key takeaways are:

  • Federal law bans private ownership and direct contact with big cats.
  • Some states still allow ownership under permit but with tight regulations.
  • Concerns remain around public safety, animal welfare, and irresponsible breeders.
  • Sanctuaries can still care for big cats under federal guidelines.
  • Incidents involving injuries or escapes show the risks of private ownership.

In conclusion, it is very difficult and in most cases illegal for individuals to privately own big cats as pets in the US due to significant risks and recent legislation.

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