If your neighbor has a tiger in his backyard, he might not have to tell you.
That’s what Terry Thompson’s neighbors discovered on a grim night in October 2011 when, like a nightmarish remake of Jumanji, exotic animals began pouring off of Thompson’s property and barreling down the road in the small town of Zanesville, Ohio. Just before taking his own life, Thompson had set his private menagerie of dangerous, captive wildlife free. Throughout the evening, the local police fielded frightened phone calls until they managed to track down and kill the swarm of fleeing animals — 49 in total, including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, a pair of grizzlies, two wolves and a baboon.
More than a tale of animals run amok, this tragedy underscored the broken regulations that have allowed a hidden captive animal problem to take root in America’s backyards. Almost three years after the bloodbath in Zanesville, little has changed, but this Congress has the opportunity to address this problem now.
Dangerous animals, such as big cats, are still being kept as pets in huge numbers. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that there are more captive tigers in the Unites States (roughly 5,000) than there are left in the wild (as few as 3,200 in all of Asia). And a staggeringly small number — less than 6 percent — of those captive big cats reside in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. No one is sure where or how the other 94 percent are kept.
In many jurisdictions, people can legally keep a tiger on their property without reporting it to local officials or neighbors. In some states, it is easier to buy a tiger than it is to adopt a dog from a local animal shelter.
Inadequate oversight makes it extremely difficult to determine how many tigers there are in captivity, where they are, and who owns them — and this lack of information makes it much harder to prevent new tragedies. It also makes it nearly impossible to monitor what happens to tigers after they die or to keep their body parts from being sold on the black market, where they may be used to make exotic illegal goods such as tiger skin rugs and tiger bone wine.
In many states, existing laws governing big cat ownership are poorly enforced, weakened by loopholes, or nonexistent. Because any trade in tiger parts potentially stimulates illegal demand for tiger products, poor regulation of captive tigers in the U.S. may also lead to more poaching of tigers in the wild — and they are already at critically low levels.
However, change is afoot.
On July 16th, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee held a hearing on the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, a bill which would greatly restrict private ownership of big cats in the U.S. and prevent individuals from keeping them as “pets.” The legislation was introduced in the House and Senate by bipartisan cosponsors, including Reps. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. More than 100 members of Congress have since signed on to co-sponsor this important legislation.
We now need to turn this great momentum into action. Better laws like this governing big cats are an obvious place to start, including a federal ban on individual ownership of tigers and a requirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that all people and facilities with existing USDA licenses for exhibition or breeding and dealing in tigers report annually on the number of tigers held, births, mortalities, transfers, and sales.
On the heels of Tuesday’s World Tiger Day, we must remain diligent in our efforts to protect this majestic species, and keep Americans safe at the same time.
To do so, U.S. laws need to change. What’s more, by strengthening the rules governing captive tigers and other big cats, we will not only be making our neighborhoods safer, we will also be helping to keep wild tigers safe in their own backyards.
Leigh Henry is senior policy advisor for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).