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Senators propose 'Tiger King'-inspired legislation to ban private big-cat ownership

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Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Tom Carper, D-Del.; and Richard Burr, R-N.C., announced the Big Cat Public Safety Act to protect public safety and animal welfare, according to a press release.

“This bipartisan measure would help stop exploitation of big cats like tigers and lions, and reduce safety risks,” Blumenthal, who authored the bill, said in a Tuesday statement. “My Big Cat Public Safety Act would prohibit private ownership of these beautiful but powerful predators, which deserve to live in the wild.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Collins similarly said that “big cats like lions, tigers, and cheetahs belong in their natural habitats, not in the hands of private owners where they are too often subject to cruelty or improper care.”

The docuseries hit tens of millions of viewers in March of last year, right as the COVID-19 pandemic kept people home and in search of more digital entertainment, and brought light to the issue of inhumane big-cat ownership in the U.S.  Senators note that the series raised public awareness on the issue.

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“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” follows the story of Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, and his life as an exotic animal owner and zookeeper in Oklahoma. It introduces several other characters from the exotic animal industry as it gives viewers a look inside Exotic’s world.

Exotic is currently serving 22 years in prison after he was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot that targeted Carole Baskin and other animal cruelty charges.

Joe Exotic from Netflix's "Tiger King." (Netflix US/AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Exotic from Netflix’s "Tiger King." (Netflix US/AFP via Getty Images)

There have been at least 700 incidents involving big cats and humans in the U.S., according to the release, including “hundreds of human injuries, maulings and deaths.”

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The senators note that cub-handling attractions and petting zoos separate young cubs from their mothers, causing irreversible damage to animals and potential dangers to the humans who handle or come in contact with them. The Humane Society confirmed this, mentioning the story of a tiger cub named Elsa, who nearly froze during the historic winter storms that hit Texas earlier this year.

“Our investigations of Joe Exotic and other big cat exhibitors just like him documented the abuse and serious public safety concerns of their tawdry operations,” Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), said in a Tuesday statement to Fox News. “Not only are paying customers in jeopardy when they interact with wild animals, they directly if unknowingly support a cruel and violent industry.”

Humane Society of the United States undercover investigation of Ryan Easley dba Show Me Tigers touring with Carden Circus and performing for several Shrine Circuses (Credit: HSUS)

Humane Society of the United States undercover investigation of Ryan Easley dba Show Me Tigers touring with Carden Circus and performing for several Shrine Circuses (Credit: HSUS)

Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, told Fox News in a statement that operations that keep big cats captive “endanger the public and produce the worst possible fate for the animals involved.”

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“The Big Cat Public Safety Act passed the House last year, so this strong start out of the box in the Senate is a promising development,” Amundson said.

The HSUS has recorded at least 50 incidents, sometimes involving multiple big cats, in the U.S. between 2012 and 2021, though an exact number is not known because no agency has a nationwide big cat-tracking system.

“The best indication that there are a good number of big cats in private hands and who are under the radar is the relative frequency of escapes, attacks and discoveries of the animals in unexpected places,” a HSUS spokesperson said.

The legislation would ban private ownership of the animals and restrict overall public contact with big cats and cubs, according to the release.

Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn, in January introduced a similar version of the Senate bill.

Fox News’ Stephanie Pagnones contributed to this report.

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