By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Ten years ago, Americans were stunned by a pet chimpanzee’s vicious attack on a Connecticut woman, Charla Nash. The animal bit off Nash’s fingers and toes, tore off most of her face, and left her fighting for her life. The chimpanzee, Travis, was shot and killed by a police officer concerned for his own life. Two years after that incident, we were shocked once again by a report from Zanesville, Ohio, where a mentally disturbed man released his private menagerie of 50 tigers, lions, cougars, bears, wolves, and primates before committing suicide. In the ensuing chaos, law enforcement officials were forced to kill most of the animals.
Most of us find it difficult to comprehend why anyone would wish to keep a chimpanzee as a pet or house lions and tigers on their property. But, in fact, across the United States, thousands of these animals are being held in terribly inadequate conditions in private garages, basements, and backyards, and in ramshackle enterprises like roadside zoos and animal exhibitions. Their plight not only raises serious animal welfare concerns, but they are also public safety disasters waiting to happen.
That’s why Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Humane Society of the United States have made the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act and the Captive Primate Safety Act in Congress a priority. Last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reintroduced both bills in the Senate. Sen. Blumenthal had met with Charla Nash, a constituent of his, after her attack, and quickly came to understand the danger and folly of private ownership.
The House version of the Big Cat Public Safety Act was introduced in February by Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and has 148 bipartisan cosponsors. It has already passed the House Natural Resources Committee. A House version of the primate bill, introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Fitzpatrick has 48 bipartisan cosponsors. The Captive Primate Safety Act passed the Senate unanimously back in 2006.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, S. 2561 and H.R. 1380, would prohibit public contact with captive tigers, lions, and other big cat species, and it would prohibit the possession of big cats by individuals and roadside zoos and other businesses unless they are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bill would not impact professionally run zoos and sanctuaries or their conservation programs.
It is especially important that we stop roadside zoos, whose exhibitors make money by offering the public opportunities to pet, feed, or take selfies with infant animals, like tiger cubs, or even swim with them. Just a few months later, when the animals are too big to handle, they end up being warehoused at substandard operations and pseudo-sanctuaries, and the roadside zoos breed new litters to meet tourist demand. It’s a vicious cycle, with no relief for the animals trapped in it.
Animals owned by individuals fare no better. Last year, we told you about a tiger found in the garage of a deserted Houston home. When rescuers came upon the 350-pound animal, he was sitting in a cage on rotting meat, mold, maggots, and his own waste. The tiger has since found a permanent home at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch where he is finally living a peaceful and contented life.
The Captive Primate Safety Act, S. 2562 and H.R. 1776, would prohibit interstate or foreign commerce of nonhuman primates for the exotic pet trade, while exempting licensed facilities such as zoos, circuses, research institutions and sanctuaries. Right now, anyone in the United States can easily buy a primate from an exotic animal dealer or over the Internet. But primates are highly intelligent and social wild animals, and their natural behaviors make them unsuited for life as pets. Adults of even smaller primate species are powerful, unpredictable, and often aggressive. Primates can also spread potentially deadly infections and diseases to people, including tuberculosis and the Herpes B virus, exacerbating the health and safety risk.
Since the incidents in Connecticut and Ohio, most U.S. states have moved to ban the private possession of big cats and large primates—a change we pushed for and applaud. But to wipe this problem out for good, we need strong federal laws that will prevent unscrupulous people from forcing animals to spend their entire lives in abject misery, while creating a public safety nightmare. Please join us by calling on your Senators and Representative in Congress to cosponsor the Big Cat Public Safety Act and the Captive Primate Safety Act. Let’s make this the year we collectively, as a nation, say no to the exploitation of innocent animals who suffer immensely in roadside zoos or as pets.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.