National ban on big cat ownership celebrated at Oakland Zoo

OAKLAND – A nationwide ban on private big cat ownership passing in Congress is getting positive reception at the Oakland zoo, where staff received two rescue tigers just last month. 

“We had a whistleblower call us from Oklahoma that there was a facility, a roadside zoo, with tigers in barren conditions, on cement floors, needing to get out of there,” said Oakland Zoo’s CEO, Nik Dehejia.

It may seem obvious that owning something as exotic and dangerous as a tiger would come with a lot of responsibility. But there are places in this country where the only rule is, there ARE no rules.

“These two tigers were living in small cages, that had never been entered in years, with feces and chicken carcasses for food,” said Darren Minier, Oakland Zoo’s Director of Animal Welfare. “And everything had just been sitting in there for the entire time that they had been alive.”

That’s how the Oakland Zoo ended up with the two female tigers they’re calling Mia and Lola. Their keepers say it’s taken a month to get them physically healthy, and on Wednesday, Mia could be seen taking some of her first looks through the fence at the newly renovated habitat she will call home. But it may be surprising to learn that, aside from the squalid conditions the cats lived in, in Oklahoma the private ownership of the tigers was completely legal.

“They were there for cub petting, they were there for photo opportunities, all about pay for play,” said Dehejia. “Again, there are tigers in backyards–more so than out in the wild. This is a horrible situation.”

In 2003, federal law banned the sale and transport of big cats across state lines, but Marty Irby, Executive Director of Animal Wellness Action in Washington D.C., said there was a big loophole.

“What they didn’t account for was people who might just GIVE a tiger to someone over a state line,” he said. “Or they may pay cash for a tiger and can’t prove whether the transaction actually took place or not.”

So now, a bill–HR 262–is heading through Congress that would ban, outright, the possession of a big cat by anyone other than an accredited zoo or rescue facility. It also stops the use of big cats for entertainment purposes like photo opps or “cub petting.” One of Oakland’s new tigers was found with its claws surgically removed, evidence that it was used for this purpose. Oakland’s staff have been fighting for this bill for 10 years and hope it can become law by the time the zoo’s new additions are settling into their new life.

“You know, there’s going to be tears. There’s going to be quiet cheers,” said Minier. “There’s going to be all of those things…just because we know what this full circle means.”

Irby said HR 263 has been put on a fast track known as “hot lining,” where a bill is sent to all Senators and if no one puts it on “hold, ” it automatically passes unanimously. He said there is some hope that that could happen as soon as Thursday.

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