(image by Roger Smith)
by Geoff Horsfield
With the beginning of the 119th Congress, the House should act to pass the “Big Cats and Public Safety Act.” The Act would amend the Lacy Act, one of the federal government’s leading pieces of animal and environmental protection and enforcement legislation. The Big Cats and Public Safety Act expands protections for wild animals, such as tigers and lions, currently held in captivity in the United States, protects human health, and limits the interstate and international trade in exotic animal parts. This bipartisan bill deserves due consideration this session.
Why do we need federal action on this issue? The domestic trade in dangerous exotic animals and their parts has been shown to support illegal poaching activities which further support global terrorist activities. Protecting wildlife aligns with the White House’s and Congress’ goals of expanding enforcement and prosecution of wildlife traffickers that back terrorism, drug and human trafficking, as evidenced in the 2014 National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking. At present, states have a patchwork of laws that provide no guidance for law enforcement or regulators once these animal parts are within our borders. The Big Cats and Public Safety Act would protect communities and wildlife while maintaining current economic interests by using Congress’ Commerce Clause powers to close loopholes and support the capabilities of states that have already taken action.
At present, there may be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers and other big cats in the United States. Without proper federal legislation, the exact number remains unknown. These animals may be kept in poor or unsafe conditions by individuals without proper animal care knowledge. This moves the issue beyond one of animal welfare to one of public safety, as animal escapes are a real possibility. While Virginia has banned the private individual ownership of dangerous wild animals, our neighbors in North Carolina have not. Without federal oversight, breeders in North Carolina can bring dangerous wildlife into our state.
A grandfather clause in the legislation would protect current owners and businesses that pass USDA inspections, which eliminates any loss of jobs. Provided animals have microchips, it would also protect sanctuaries, rehabilitators, state colleges and universities, and circuses or entertainment venues in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. Circuses and AZA-accredited zoos would not be impacted by this legislation. Rather it would provide for more USDA inspectors and encourage consumers to visit legitimate zoos and sanctuaries, providing an economic incentive for these facilities to meet or exceed standards.
The majority of the public supports a ban on private individual ownership of dangerous exotic animals, however a few individuals are profiting from the exotic animal trade. The Act is purposefully limited in scope to avoid threatening the livelihood of any responsible organizations. Previous legislation has also been supported by US Fish and Wildlife Services, US Department of Agriculture, the American Bar Association, World Wildlife Federation, World Health Organization, and others. At present, a few private owners and ill-prepared roadside zoos are exploiting this loophole in federal and state legislation to put the public and wildlife at risk.
Congress has the authority to enact this legislation over the states under the Commerce Clause. The current patchwork of laws at the state and local level has eliminated proper enforcement and created a misunderstanding of regulations that illicit breeders capitalize on. A federal law would alleviate these issues and Virginia’s support would provide both sides of the aisle an opportunity to earn political capital and a chance to create momentum on other issues.