Our Burning Planet


‘Tiger King’ docuseries outrage sparks imminent US ban on big cat ownership

‘Tiger King’ docuseries outrage sparks imminent US ban on big cat ownership
Photo: EPA / Farooq Khan)

Public disgust over Joe Exotic’s series ‘Tiger King’ has led to the US Senate passing an act banning backyard big cat ownership and cub petting.

The US Senate this week unanimously passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act which prohibits owning lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars or any hybrid of these species as pets. Public contact such as petting, playing with, feeding and selfie photo ops with both cubs and adults will also be outlawed. It now awaits President Biden’s signature to become law.

The act was first introduced in 2012 in the wake of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King, which heightened public attention to the exploitation of captive big cats. In 2020 the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the act, but the Senate failed to take up the bill. It has now been given Senate approval.

Thousands of big cats are thought to be in private hands in the US, posing a serious threat to public safety as well as to first responders who risk their lives when the animals escape or attack. There have been hundreds of dangerous incidents involving pet big cats, sometimes resulting in people being severely injured and even killed.


The profit derived from encouraging the public to handle and pose with cubs has been the main driver of a relentless breeding cycle that floods the exotic pet trade with surplus tigers which have outgrown the cub stage. Facilities that offer cub petting opportunities have also been known to kill adolescent tigers once they’re too big to handle and can no longer generate profits.

“Big cats like lions, tigers and cheetahs belong in their natural habitats, not in the hands of private owners where they are too often subject to cruelty or improper care,” said Senator Susan Collins, one of the act’s main proposers. 

tiger king big cat ban

Public contact such as petting, playing with, feeding and selfie photo ops with both big cat cubs and adults will also be outlawed in the US. (Photo: EPA / Str)

“Our legislation will prohibit the private ownership of big cats, which threatens the safety of the animals and the public and harms conservation efforts. I am pleased that our colleagues supported our bipartisan effort to improve the welfare of animals.”

“The Big Cat Public Safety Act will end the horrific exploitation of big cats and bolster public safety,” Senator Richard Blumenthal added. “These beautiful but powerful predators deserve to live in the wild, not be kept in captivity for people’s entertainment — even as cubs. I’m thrilled that, after a groundswell of public and bipartisan support, this bill I’ve long advocated for will become law.”

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The screening of Tiger King had unintended consequences for the boastful Joe Exotic, who inadvertently brought exploitative pet keeping to public notice. He is presently serving 21 years in federal prison for 17 wildlife-related charges as well as murder-for-hire charges.

Jeff Lowe, who took charge of Joe Exotic’s zoo and intended to open a cub-petting operation in Oklahoma, had his operation raided by federal authorities who brought civil charges against him. Lowe’s animals have been confiscated and placed at sanctuaries.

Tim Stark, another prominent Tiger King “star”, had his animals confiscated by the State of Indiana for multiple animal-related and nonprofit-operation violations. He fled the state after a criminal charge was filed and was arrested in New York.

Bhagavan Antle was arrested on charges of money laundering. He’s also facing charges by the State of Virginia with 15 counts of wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty.

President Biden’s signature will officially ink the act into law, a likely outcome given that the White House has already provided public support for the bill. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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