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Big cats in the U.S.

Exploitation and private ownership of big cats 

Out of all the big cats, tigers appear to be the most prevalent species in captivity among private owners. And Netflix’s shocking documentary-series, Tiger King, hits close to home as the public realizes there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than there are in the wild!

Big cats as pets

The private ownership of big cats, such as lions and tigers, remains a huge animal welfare and human safety issue. Between 5,000 – 10,000 big cats are estimated to be in private ownership in the U.S.1

However, the actual number is unknown, as there is no federal law or comprehensive regulatory system in place to document how many captive-bred big cats are kept by private owners. Instead, laws and regulations on private ownership of exotic animals fall to state governments and vary wildly by state, creating confusion, loopholes, and an ineffective method for regulating these dangerous wild animals. This is why we need to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R.263/S.1210)!


For instance, in Texas you can buy a tiger for less than $1,000 and are merely required to purchase a permit from the state’s wildlife department. Four other states don’t even go that far and have no law in place that directly regulates or controls the private possession of wild or exotic animals. Overall, the confusing patchwork of state laws (some states ban big cats as pets, some have only partial restrictions, and some merely require a permit) results in ineffective enforcement and completely fails to protect public safety and animal welfare.

Big cats like lions and tigers are not simply larger versions of a domesticated house cat. These species have specific needs that a private household and a life in cage will never be able to fulfill. As naturally wild animals, owners attempt to “tame” big cats through cruel handling and barbaric treatment, including declawing and defanging them, thus crippling and subjecting the cats to a life of chronic pain and debilitation. Even with these extreme measures, big cats retain their wild instincts and many accidents and deaths have occurred over the years involving the owners and general public. Too often such incidents result in the big cat’s death. 

Sanctuaries today are filled to capacity with big cats who were either: relinquished to them by owners who could no longer afford to feed and care for the animals; confiscated by law enforcement due to neglect, abandonment, or animal cruelty; or rescued from exploitative roadside zoos, circuses, exotic animal auctions, and other public attractions.

For the many places offering cub petting opportunities across the country, they need a constant stream of cubs younger than 12 weeks old for public interactions. This need creates a vicious cycle of tiger breeding, animal abuse, and trading of hundreds of big cats among private owners, with no accountability for what happens to those big cats once they are no longer wanted or needed.

Take Action!

Contact your US representative and US senators today to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act!

Currently there is no U.S. federal law regarding the private ownership of big cats as pets. Therefore, the fate of these big cats, like their population numbers, remains an unregulated mystery. In addition, the allowance of public contact with big cats creates immense health and safety risks for both people and big cats. 

In substandard zoos and backyards across the country, big cats live in deplorable and unsafe conditions without proper veterinary care, nutrition, and enrichment. The demand for big cats as exotic pets, the use of cubs for petting displays and photo opportunities, and the lucrative trade in their pelts and body parts provide dangerous incentives for their continued exploitation. When things go wrong, law enforcement officers and other first responders are put in harm's way to protect the general public and the animals.

The captive big cat crisis is why passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R.263/S.1210) is so important! The Big Cat Public Safety Act will protect the public and put an end to the incredibly cruel "cub petting" operations throughout the country by restricting direct physical contact between big cats and the public. It will also limit private ownership, bringing an end to the excessive breeding, mismanagement, and inhumane treatment of thousands of tigers, lions, and other big cats in the U.S.

Here is how to take action! 

1. Simply call and email your federal legislators and urge them to cosponsor the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R.263/S.1210).

This bill will protect the public and big cats by banning public contact with big cats and limiting the private ownership of big cats as pets, thus bringing an end to the excessive breeding, mismanagement, and inhumane treatment of thousands of tigers, lions, and other big cats in the U.S.  As their constituent and a proponent of big cat protection and conservation, urge them to support H.R. 263/S.1210 for the sake of public safety and the thousands of mistreated big cats currently living in horrible conditions throughout America.

To find your U.S. representative please visit: 

To find your U.S. senators please visit: 

If your legislator is already a cosponsor, please still contact them by email and thank them for their support of this crucial bill. Current list of cosponsors available here.

2. Show your support on social! Here is a sample social media post:

It's time to end the excessive breeding and abuse of thousands of tigers, lions, and other big cats in America. For the sake of public safety and to protect tigers in the wild, I support passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R.263/S.1210), which will limit private ownership of big cats and stop the horrific cub petting industry in the U.S.