The new Netflix docu-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, Madness, which arrived on the streaming platform on Mar. 20, follows the bizarre feud between Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who goes by Joe Exotic, a gun-toting, mulleted man who acquired hundreds of big cats and started the G.W. Zoo — a private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma — and Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, which is an animal sanctuary dedicated to providing forever homes for abused and neglected big cats.
While there is plenty to unpack in the show’s seven episodes, including a murder-for-hire plot, the series begins with a startling figure: there are more captive tigers in the United States than wild ones left in the world.
Public zoos, which must be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, account for some of the captive tigers living in America, but thousands of others, as Tiger King shows, are kept by individuals as exotic pets or are living in privately-owned zoos (also known as roadside zoos).
To learn more about how American citizens can legally own tigers, lions, and other large, dangerous animals as pets, PEOPLE talked to Alicia Prygoski, the legislative affairs manager at Animal League Defense Fund — a group dedicated to furthering animal welfare “by filing high-impact lawsuits to protect animals” — about the current laws (or lack thereof) regarding exotic pet ownership in the United States.
What is your legal experience in regards to big cats?
I’ve worked to pass laws that protect animals for approximately the past eight years. I’ve worked on everything from captive wildlife issues to farmed animals, to companion animals. I currently monitor the status of big cat bans around the country and am actively working to pass federal legislation prohibiting private ownership of big cats.
Can anyone legally own a big cat as a pet in the United States?
Though it is estimated that there are thousands of privately-owned big cats across the country, there are currently no federal laws prohibiting or regulating private possession of big cats in the United States. So depending on state and municipal law, it could be perfectly legal to own a big cat as a pet.
It is also legal to own big cats for commercial purposes, such as displaying them to the public, as long as a facility obtains a license from the United States Department of Agriculture and adheres to the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Welfare Act sets bare minimum care standards for big cats and other animals at roadside zoos.
What current laws are there in the United States regulating big cat ownership?
The lack of a uniform federal law prohibiting private possession of big cats has resulted in a patchwork of inconsistent regulations across states and municipalities that do not adequately protect big cats. Some states ban private possession of big cats, while others rely on mere licensing structures, and some have no regulations in place at all.
Are you legally allowed to breed big cats in the U.S.?
As is the case with publicly displaying big cats, as long as a commercial breeder obtains a license, they are allowed to breed cubs. Many cubs are bred at roadside zoos. Cubs are bred at a rapid rate in inhumane conditions all over the country to fuel the “cub-petting” industry.
Is it legal for big owners to charge others to handle cubs, also known as “pay to play” cub handling?
Allowing the public to play with, feed, and take selfies with cubs is still legal, and it fuels the big cat trade due to the constant demand for cubs. “Cub-petting” facilities are inherently cruel; cubs are often taken away from their mothers right after they’re born, and are forced to work constantly until they’re a few months old. Once they get too big to interact with the public, they’re either shipped off to roadside zoos, used as breeder cats or killed. They’re then replaced by new cubs and the cycle starts all over again.
What restrictions are in place legally in regards to profiting off personally-owned big cats?
If a private owner decides to profit by publicly displaying big cats, it is simple to obtain a license from the United States Department of Agriculture. Whether big cats are privately possessed as pets, or owned by a commercial exhibitor, loopholes in current law allow them to be easily exploited for profit.
Do owners break these laws? If so, how?
Laws designed to protect big cats are violated all the time. Individuals privately possess big cats in states where they’re not allowed to do so, others neglect to obtain proper licensing for their animals. And we’ve seen many horrific violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which sets bare minimum care standards for big cats and other animals at roadside zoos.
What laws are there to manage private zoos? How are those laws different from those for private zoos?
Many big cats live in small roadside zoos, which differ vastly from zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an entity that imposes minimum care standards and does not allow the public to have direct contact with animals.
Because they are exhibiting animals, roadside zoos have to acquire a license from the United States Department of Agriculture, but licenses are extremely easy to obtain, as long as a facility can show it is able to properly contain the animals. This often means that roadside zoos do not have space or resources to properly care for animals. Big cats at roadside zoos are regularly kept in small, barren cages with little room to move around, little access to veterinary care, and no psychological enrichment for their entire lives.
There’s a range of opinions about keeping big cats in zoos, but we can all agree that no facility should have big cats or any other captive wild animals if they’re incapable of taking care of the animals’ extremely complex physical and psychological needs.
How do private big cat owners source their big cat pets?
Privately-owned big cats can come from a variety of situations, mostly all of which are inhumane. Many are purchased directly from breeders, while others are leftover from the cub-petting industry.
What laws are in the works to protect big cats and affect big cat ownership?
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill that is pending in Congress right now, would prohibit the private possession of big cats. Individuals who currently own big cats would be allowed to keep them, but must license them with the United States Department of Agriculture, and cannot acquire more. The Big Cat Public Safety Act would also make it illegal for exhibitors to allow direct public contact with big cat cubs.
How can animal lovers support the Big Cat Public Safety Act?
As bills move through the legislative process at all levels of government, legislators need to hear that protecting big cats is important to their constituents. Reaching out to legislative offices and expressing concern, both for the health and welfare of big cats and for the safety of communities, is critical in ensuring laws to protect big cats get passed.