Thousands of Big Cats Are Suffering in Inhumane Roadside Zoos Across the U.S.

Thousands of lions, tigers, leopards and other big cat species are kept in grossly inhumane conditions by private individuals and unqualified exhibitors in the United States.


A man in a suburban Chicago neighborhood kept a tiger in a 5x5-foot cage in his garage.

New York authorities confiscated a 500-pound pet tiger from a Harlem apartment.

People in California, Texas and North Carolina have encountered confused and abandoned tiger cubs wandering the streets.

In two separate incidents in Kansas, county sheriffs seized tigers and other big cats who were found neglected and living in filth in flimsy cages.

There’s no question these animals endanger communities. Since 1990, there have been hundreds of dangerous incidents involving captive big cats in nearly every state. Four children have been killed and dozens of others lost limbs or suffered other traumatic injuries. Nineteen adults have been killed and scores have been mauled.

To remedy this problem, an alliance of leading animal welfare organizations—Big Cat Rescue, Born Free USA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Humane Society Legislative Fund, and the Humane Society of the United States—support the recently reintroduced Big Cat Public Safety Act. The legislation prohibits the ownership of tigers, lions, leopards and other big cat species by unqualified individuals and poorly run animal exhibitions.

The problematic ownership of these animals is intertwined with an exploitative industry that breeds big cats for cub-petting opportunities. The use of infant big cats for public handling, such as photo ops and play sessions, is based on heartbreaking abuse. Breeders churn out babies who are pulled from their mothers shortly after birth. Removing newborns from their mothers is traumatic for the mother, who mourns the loss of her young cubs, as well as for the babies, who are deprived of proper nutrition and care.

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A mother tiger and her cubs languish in a miserable zoo. (image: Big Cat Rescue)

These vulnerable baby animals with weak immune systems are forced to endure rough and excessive public handling during which they are deprived of much-needed sleep, physical abuse from handlers attempting to keep them under control, and stressful conditions associated with transport.

When the animals grow too large for public handling, they are typically discarded. It is impossible to know where all of these big cats end up, but many go to pseudo-sanctuaries—facilities run by operators who want the public to think that they run legitimate havens for animals in need, but who are really providing sub-standard animal care that also endangers caretakers and the public. Other big cats are warehoused at roadside zoos or sold into the pet trade.

It is not uncommon for these unhealthy animals to suffer from malnutrition, parasitic infestations and other ailments. Some die prematurely as a result of inadequate care.

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Like the owner of this emaciated pet lion, private owners often fail to provide a proper diet. (image: Humane Society of the United States)

Careless handling practices and unsafe big cat cages are a disaster waiting to happen, and when it does, first responders and the community are put in danger. This was underscored a few years ago in Zanesville, Ohio, when a deranged man released 18 tigers, 17 African lions, three cougars and numerous other animals before committing suicide. Forty-eight animals were subsequently shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in a terrifying ordeal that lasted through the night.

No one should have to risk encountering an escaped big cat in their neighborhood, and no wild animal should have to spend his life pacing in circles around a barren cage. Too many captive big cats are kept in inhumane conditions, posing a threat to the community and creating a burden for law enforcement agencies and sanctuaries.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act, H.R. 1818, is a common-sense solution to this dangerous and cruel problem, and it is time for Congress to act.

TAKE ACTION: Tell members of Congress that you care about big cats and support H.R. 1818.

This article was written with the assistance of Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue, Humane Society Legislative Fund, Humane Society of the United States and International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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