House passes ‘Tiger King’ bill to ban private ownership of big cats

Legislation was featured in infamous Netflix docuseries

Adaeze, a young cheetah from the Leo Zoo in Greenwich, Conn., licks a hand after a briefing titled “Combating Threats to the Cheetah, Africa's Most Endangered Big Cat” on Capitol Hill in 2016.  (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Adaeze, a young cheetah from the Leo Zoo in Greenwich, Conn., licks a hand after a briefing titled “Combating Threats to the Cheetah, Africa's Most Endangered Big Cat” on Capitol Hill in 2016. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 10:05pm

The House on Thursday passed a bill that could prevent the emergence of another “Tiger King.”

Joe Exotic, the other nickname for “Tiger King” Joseph Maldonado-Passage for whom the infamous Netflix docuseries is named, is in prison serving a 22-year sentence for wildlife crimes and a murder-for-hire scheme. But some in Congress want to make sure no one else can ever allow the public to interact with big cats like the “Tiger King” did at the former Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. 

[How ‘Tiger King’ wooed Congress before it was ‘Tiger King’]

The House in a 272-114 vote Thursday passed legislation known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban private ownership of big cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars or cougars. The measure would make it illegal for someone to breed or own big cats without an animal exhibition license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture but would grandfather in current owners if they register with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and abide by federal regulations.

The bill’s actual impact on the “Tiger King” — had he not got into financial and legal trouble that forced him to transfer ownership of his zoo to Jeff Lowe and ultimately led to his imprisonment — would have been minimal. Maldonado-Passage had an exhibitor license so he could have remained in operation but would have had to stop his controversial practice of cub petting, as the bill would ban licensed exhibitors from allowing visitors to interact with big cats. USDA suspended the zoo’s license this summer, and shortly after, Lowe announced he would permanently close operations, an action court battles had already set in motion.

The measure, sponsored by Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley, required two-thirds support for passage because it was brought up under the fast-track process known as suspension of the rules. It garnered enough bipartisan support despite some Republican opposition over concerns it would destroy responsible wildlife exhibitors and structured breeding programs for big cats.

House Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop, the only member to speak against the legislation during the brief floor debate Thursday, argued that reality TV shouldn’t serve as the basis for public policy.

“This bill, contrary to what I’ve been hearing so far, is not about protecting the public from big cats,” the Utah Republican said. “It is about hurting small, family-run zoos across the country. It is a power play of some kind.”

Some GOP lawmakers also poked fun at Democrats for putting the bill on the floor ahead of measures such as coronavirus relief.

The big cat legislation existed long before the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King,” released in March, told the world the story of Joe Exotic and his tiger empire. Carole Baskin, Exotic’s archrival in the docuseries and owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, has been pushing the bill for years. 

The first episode of “Tiger King” showed Baskin lobbying on Capitol Hill, followed by a clip of California Democrat Jared Huffman chairing a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the bill.

“The Big Cat Public Safety Act would end the ownership of big cats as exotic pets and prohibit exhibitors from allowing the public to have contact with them,” Huffman said in the clip.

His comments were followed by Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, owner of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, asserting that the bill, if passed, “would destroy private zoos across America.” Antle was recently indicted for wildlife trafficking. 

Huffman looked back to his cameo in a tweet Tuesday about the series that he previously told Heard on the Hill paired well with “a bottle of Tums.”

“Through the drama and twists, it showed a real issue: the inhumane exploitation of these majestic animals,” he said. “We’re bringing the #BigCatPublicSafetyAct to end these practices up for a vote, and I’m glad to have helped move it forward through our committee.”

The bill was reported out of the Natural Resources Committee in September 2019, half a year before “Tiger King” came out on Netflix, on a 21-14 vote. Only one Republican voted for it: Arkansas’ Bruce Westerman, whom the House GOP Conference on Thursday approved to be the committee’s ranking member in the next Congress.

Quigley and other Democrats have taken to Twitter this week to celebrate the bill finally getting a floor vote.

Some Democrats invoked “Tiger King” to promote the bill.

Baskin mentioned the uphill battle to pass the bill in a Nov. 26 post on her rescue website on the current whereabouts of the “Tiger King” stars, noting that her husband, Howard Baskin, continued to lead weekly calls with coalitions partnering on the effort to phase out private possession of big cats. 

“We have a majority, with over 230 co sponsors, but need a 2/3rds vote to pass under suspension,” she wrote. “We are rallying the tens of millions of supporters of our collective organizations to contact their member of Congress.”

As for her personal update, Baskin noted her appearance on the most recent season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and said she is in negotiations for a TV series on her work to end abuse of big cats. A judge handed over control of the Oklahoma property that Maldonado-Passage once owned to Baskin and her husband this summer.

Strangely, a volunteer at Baskin’s Tampa facility was attacked by a tiger on Thursday morning, hours before debate on the bill began. The tiger, Kimba, bit Candy Crouser and “nearly tore her arm off,” the New York Daily News reported.

Meanwhile, Maldonado-Passage has been posting on Instagram from jail, expressing hope that President Donald Trump will pardon him and promising that if he gets out, his “Tiger King” days are over. 

“If President Trump grants me this miracle, I can honestly say I am putting everyone connected to that zoo and that industry behind me,” he said in a Nov. 30 post. “I am taking the higher road and will work on forgiving them. … Carole and all the rest who thrive on controlling others’ lives can go on about their way without me.”