Almost one year ago, Zanesville, Ohio, suffered a terrible tragedy. Before committing suicide, the owner of a backyard menagerie opened the cages of his exotic pets, allowing tigers, leopards, lions, wolves, bears and monkeys to escape and wander about in the community.
Aggressive in nature and meant to thrive in the wild, these animals roamed the streets, posing a threat to the citizens of Muskingum County, themselves and public safety. Local authorities, who were neither trained nor properly equipped to deal with a situation of that magnitude, responded the best way they knew how and were forced to shoot and kill nearly 50 animals - 38 of them big cats - before they could enter populated areas.
In light of this tragic event, California Reps. Buck McKeon (R) and Loretta Sanchez (D) introduced H.R. 4122, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act. The bill seeks to prohibit breeding and private possession of big cats and would ensure that lions, tigers and other dangerous big cats do not threaten public safety, diminish global big cat conservation efforts or live in abusive conditions. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced S. 3547, a companion bill in the Senate. Both bills seek to prohibit breeding and private possession of big cats and would ensure that lions, tigers and other dangerous big cats do not threaten public safety, diminish global big cat conservation efforts or live in abusive conditions.
It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 20,000 big cats held in private ownership in the United States, although the exact number remains a mystery because of the lack of disclosure requirements. In the past couple of decades, incidents involving captive big cats have resulted in the deaths of 21 humans (including five children), the additional mauling of 247 more humans, 259 escapes, 143 big cats deaths and 132 confiscations.
Proper legislation is needed to address this. The current regulatory patchwork of state regulations for dangerous captive big cats just doesn't work. Seven states lack regulations regarding private ownership of exotic animals. Two states have partial bans. Another 13 states allow big cat possession only with a state permit, and 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted full bans on private ownership of big cats, though nearly all of those exempt federally licensed exhibitors.
For the animals and members of these communities, this is problematic. A federal standard is required to provide comprehensive protection for all parties involved. Congress must pass H.R. 4122.
As McKeon noted when the legislation was introduced, "When accidents happen and these wild cats are released into our neighborhoods, it causes panic, puts a strain on our local public safety responders and is extremely dangerous. This bill is a step forward in protecting the public and ensuring that wildcats reside in proper living conditions."
"The events in Ohio last year showed the tragedy that can occur when exotic animals are privately owned by individuals, with little to no oversight," Sanchez said. "Wild animals are dangerous, and we clearly need better laws limiting their ownership. Exotic species should be regulated to high-quality facilities with the ability to properly care for them."
We couldn't agree more and applaud McKeon and Sanchez for taking the lead on this issue, while also hoping their colleagues will take note and follow suit.
The last thing any of us wants is another incident like the one in Zanesville.
Azzedine Downes is executive vice president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Matt Lutz is sheriff of Muskingum County, Ohio.