Cat fight: A battle over the future of exotic felines 

New legislation may change the rules for owners of lions, tigers and other big cats.

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“Tigers, lions and cougars are kept as pets in the U.S. in alarming numbers,” said the actor via his Facebook page, “often leading to mistreatment and cruelty towards the animals themselves, but also diminishing big cat conservation around the world. Let’s prevent another Zanesville, Ohio tragic incident from happening again and take action to ban private ownership of big cats in the US.”

Leo’s post featured a link to the IFAW website, where users could send an email to their local congressperson voicing their support for H.R. 4122.

Sen. John Kerry introduced the companion bill, Senate 3547, on Sept. 13; it has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

“This bill will ensure that these endangered creatures are kept in secure, professional facilities like wildlife sanctuaries,” Kerry said, “rather than in small cages in someone’s backyard or apartment building.”

Kremer says that the issue comes down to one common denominator: in American society, these cats are considered just another thing to be owned. Seemingly lost in the battle over private ownership is the public safety concern posed when a wild animal is kept in captivity in a populated area.

In May, a cougar escaped its backyard enclosure in Hernando County, as reported by Tampa Bay’s CBS affiliate, WTSP-Channel 10. While out, Charlie, the mountain lion, killed a neighbor’s pet beagle. Mickey Milano, owner of the dog, wonders what might happen to her granddaughter if this was the fate of her dog.

click to enlarge NOT A TOY: “This black leopard, Sabre, in front of us, that’s not property," says BCR's Kremer. - KEVIN TALL
  • Kevin Tall
  • NOT A TOY: “This black leopard, Sabre, in front of us, that’s not property," says BCR's Kremer.

“This black leopard, Sabre, in front of us, that’s not property,” Kremer says, referring to a cat in residence at BCR. “That’s a living, sentient being that should be afforded protection and a certain standard level of care. And it’s a dangerous animal; it’s a carnivore. Leopards can lift two to three times their body weight into trees… That leopard could lift two of me, so why do we consider it, in our society, acceptable to keep something like that in somebody’s house or backyard as a pet?”

click to enlarge CAT FANCIER: "Never in my life," says FCF's Lynn Culver, "did I think I would be looking into the soft eyes of this creature from the rain forest." - COURTESY OF LYNN CULVER
  • Courtesy of Lynn Culver
  • CAT FANCIER: "Never in my life," says FCF's Lynn Culver, "did I think I would be looking into the soft eyes of this creature from the rain forest."

Big Cat Rescue is not without its detractors. A 2011 Bay News 9 story called into question the origin of many of the cats they claim to have rescued. Scour the Web enough and you’ll find blogs dedicated to anti-BCR sentiment, calling it a “scam-tuary.”

Opponents use Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin’s beginnings as an exotic cat breeder to fan the flames. The facility’s own website describes its “evolution” from rescuing bobcats by buying them from fur farms to a sanctuary that preaches against buying, selling, trading or breeding.

Lynn Culver, Arkansas-based executive director of the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF), is philosophically opposed both to BCR and to the proposed legislation, which she calls a “manage-to-extinction plan.” She regards Baskin as “the face of ‘No one should have cats.’”

“I really don’t respect her as a person,” she says of Baskin. Camp BCR returns the compliment. “Lynn Culver breeds and sells exotic cats as pets and sees Carole Baskin as the leading threat to her continued business in that trade.”

Reflecting on Zanesville, Culver points out that she and other FCF members were concerned for the welfare of the animals and contacted Ohio sanctuaries within three weeks of Thompson’s incarceration on federal weapons charges, nearly a full year before the calamitous events unfolded. She says the people taking care of the property threatened trespassing charges against sanctuary workers attempting to feed the animals.

“Needless to say he came out of [a year of incarceration] more deranged than he went in. And it wasn’t that the animals were dangerous, it was that the man was dangerous,” Culver said of Terry Thompson.

“Unfortunately, there’s just a trend. Every time there’s a bad owner, who illustrates that there needs to be regulation, there needs to be rules, it doesn’t seem to result in that. It seems to result in taking everybody’s freedoms away,” Culver says.

Her beef with the potential law is that it calls for prohibition instead of regulation and that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a monopoly on the breeding exemptions. Culver calls the AZA “a communistic dictatorship” in which member zoos give up individual rights and freedoms, standing to lose perhaps their best stock to a larger zoo. Culver says many smaller zoos would not choose to be AZA members because the exorbitant dues are not worth the risk of having a rare animal poached by Big Brother. Creative Loafing’s requests for comment from AZA were not returned.

“Who is sponsoring this bill?” Culver asks rhetorically. “AZA is not the special interest group. It’s the sanctuary community… and they haven’t a clue about the conservation. It’s not even the WWF; it’s the Carole Baskins and Tippi Hedrens of the world. And they are not qualified to propose legislation that would have this kind of devastating effect on captive conservation.”

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