There Are More Captive Tigers In The U.S. Than In The Wild Worldwide. This Bill Could Change ThatGet the Full StoryIn Carole Baskin's dream world, there would be no lions and tigers in cages. That includes at her own facility -- a certified sanctuary called Big Cat Rescue, in Tampa, Florida.
Big Cat Rescue is home to 89 lions, tigers, ocelots, sand cats, bobcats, cougars and other big cats. Baskin keeps a spreadsheet of how each animal got to her, along with information about the animals that she's been contacted about but hasn't taken in.
It's a grim read. There's a bobcat kept as a pet, whose owner no longer wants him. A lioness seized in a drug raid. A tiger and a lion who used to be with the circus. A coatimundi losing his home because his owners are getting divorced. A cat merely identified as a "hybrid" found in the back of a U-Haul, along with a dead bobcat. Three tigers who need to go somewhere because the zoo where they're living says they can't afford to feed them anymore.
If they get to Tampa, these guys are lucky. Big Cat Rescue is such a nice place that its lions and tigers get to spend two weeks a year on vacation. They're removed from their already-large regular enclosures and dispatched to one of two 2.5-acre enclosures filled with grassy knolls, ponds, trees, hiding spots, toys -- all sorts of things to help keep them as happy as possible.
Which Baskin thinks, even with this, isn't happy enough.
"We absolutely believe that wild cats don't belong in cages and everything we do is working toward the day that we don't have to exist," she said.
Her newest effort is campaigning for a bill introduced in Congress last month. The Big Cat Public Safety Act would essentially ban most private ownership of lions and tigers, and a handful of other big cats.
Zoos certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the most-respected accreditation organization, would be allowed to keep and breed big cats. Certain sanctuaries, universities, wildlife rehabilitators and -- this one's a political nod -- some traveling circuses, would also have exemptions.
On Tuesday, this bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands -- nowhere near the end of the line, but a promising step.
Currently under federal law, the private ownership of big cats in the United States is shockingly under-regulated. A 2003 law called the Captive Wildlife Safety Act restricts the interstate transport of big cats, but exempts big cat owners who hold licenses from the United States Department of Agriculture. Some states and cities also restrict the keeping of big cats.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are still 5,000 to 7,000 tigers in captivity in the United States, at any given time. That's about twice as many as the estimated 3,200 tigers in the wild.
Fewer than 400 of these amazing creatures are at zoos that are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Most of the others are in situations far worse than what they'd experience at Big Cat Rescue.
Last year, the World Wildlife Fund wrote that the captive big cats are under "continued lax management," living in backyards, truck stops, roadside zoos and a variety of other likely dismal, largely unregulated circumstances.
"In many jurisdictions, people can legally keep a tiger on their property without reporting it to local officials or neighbors," WWF noted. "In some states, it is easier to buy a tiger than to adopt a dog from a local animal shelter."
Lisa Wathne, the Humane Society's captive wildlife specialist, told HuffPost that no one knows how many lions there are, nor is there any census of where these animals live. As with tigers, some are in roadside zoos, some are pets, some are even part of the exotic meat trade.
This would change, if the current legislative effort goes through.
Baskin is hopeful it will.
On top of Big Cat Rescue and the Humane Society's longstanding advocacy campaigns, the general public seems to have become more invested in big cat issues, too, since Cecil the lion's killing. A new documentary, "Blood Lion," could bring more recognition to these issues.
Increased public awareness, Baskin hopes, will lead to political action. Supporters are urged to contact their members of Congress, to show them that constituents care about this issue.
She's seen before that this process can work.
"The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which took six years, but passed unanimously in 2003, shows that if Congress ever hears our bill, it will pass," Baskin said.
Until that happens, and the most egregious segments of the captive big cat industry are shut down for good, Baskin would like to see advocates taking smaller steps.
You can ask zoos to rescue big cats instead of breeding them. Boycott facilities that allow visitors to take their photos with tiger or lion cubs. Donate to sanctuaries that don't buy, breed, sell, trade or let visitors play with or otherwise make contact with the animals.
And, step by step, work toward a world where, in time, even the good big cat sanctuaries no longer exist.
"There is no amount of space, no amount of enrichment, no amount of love that will provide an exotic cat with any semblance of existence they were designed to master," Baskin said. "There is no good way to keep a wild cat in a cage. They are hardwired to be free."
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