House lawmakers paw over bill inspired by 'Tiger King'

May 13, 2022

While the self-styled “Tiger King” seeks a new trial from his federal prison cell, legislation propelled by his television notoriety is prowling forward one paw at a time.

In a hearing yesterday, House members lent an ear to a bill that the author, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) says will stop the "exploitative, dangerous and inhumane" treatment of tigers and other wild animals.

"Five-hundred-pound carnivores pose a serious and very real threat to first responders, law enforcement officers and entire communities around the country,” Quigley told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife.

His bill, H.R. 263, would ban the private ownership and sale of so-called big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and cougars. Quigley said there are currently an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 big cats held in captivity throughout the United States (E&E Daily, Jan. 13, 2021).

"The exact number is unknown because of how many big cats are being held in private hands," Quigley said.

An identical bill passed the House in 2020, but the Senate never took up a companion bill filed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) (E&E Daily, Dec. 4, 2020).

Both lawmakers have cited as partial justification the Netflix series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” The hit show documented the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma and its former owner, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who also went by "Joe Exotic.”

"This series showed us a lot of things, but one of the things that it definitely showed was that there is a dark, dangerous side to keeping lions, tigers and big cats in captivity," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chair, adding that the bill "is a common-sense solution."

Maldonado-Passage is currently serving a 21-year sentence following his conviction on two murder-for-hire counts, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

An appeals court determined the original sentence of 22 years was incorrectly based on the judge’s double-counting of the murder-for-hire offense (Greenwire, July 15, 2021).

In a sprawling motion for a new trial filed last month, Maldonado-Passage’s attorneys allege a litany of problems including “perjury” by witnesses, “extortion on behalf of the cooperating government witnesses” and “substantial government misconduct.”

Quigley's bill, meanwhile, includes exemptions for exhibitors with Agriculture Department Class C licenses, such as public zoos and animal sanctuaries. It also grandfathers current big cat owners if they register with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The bill would prohibit the registered animal owners from allowing direct contact between the public and their cats. Individuals who knowingly violate the bill's mandates could face fines of up to $20,000 and/or prison sentences up to five years.

Matt Lutz, sheriff of Muskingum County, Ohio, backed Quigley's bill by recounting a 2011 incident in which exotic animal collector Terry Thompson released more than 50 exotic animals, including 38 tigers, lions and cougars, that he had been keeping on his property.

“It was up to me to determine what to do,” Lutz stated. ‘In order to protect my community, I had to make the difficult decision to shoot the animals before they could harm or kill anyone.”

Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon said he wants to hear an assessment of the bill from FWS, which was not represented at the hearing that was dominated by discussion of seven water-related bills.

"The main crux of this bill is critical," said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), while adding that "we could probably work on" some bill details such as set-back requirements and distinctions between treatment of volunteers and paid zoo staff.

By:  Michael Doyle
Source: E&E News