Tiger King and Tiger Law

With everyone now having seen Tiger King on Netflix, one of the many, many, many questions that people are having is, “What is the law on owning tigers in the US?” A lot of the documentary is spent talking about tiger breeding, tiger ownership, tiger’s being kept in all kinds of different conditions, cub petting, killing your significant other with tigers, and so on.

While in no way comprehensive, this article attempts to shed some light on some of the major laws in place for regulating the big cat industry including care, breeding, and penalties for not following the law. This article will focus on Florida law as our law firm is based out of Florida and Carole Baskins of Big Cat Rescue is also in Florida. If you are reading this in another state, then the laws are likely different and so would be applied in a different manner.

The first law to discuss is the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and 16 USCA § 1539 aka Captive Bred Wildlife Regulations (CBW). The ESA created a federally recognized list of endangered plants and animals which were to be protected in various ways depending on their level of endangerment. Tigers are on this list.

Much like the ESA, the CBW is designed to protect animals and plants that are threatened or endangered either domestically or internationally. This law makes it generally illegal to;

  1. Import,
  2. Possess,
  3. Sell or offer for sale,
  4. Deliver, carry, transport, or ship by any means whatsoever

any species on the endangered species list. However, like most big federal laws such as the CBW, there are exceptions to importing, possessing, selling, endangers species (including tigers) if you meeting the following criteria:

  1. If it for scientific purposes or
  2. For the propagation or survival of the affected species.

In order to qualify for these 2 exceptions, you have to get a permit. To get a permit you have to submit a plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. The plan must include an explanation on how the actions of the particular individual or organizations will have on the endangered species and any actions this persona or organization will take to help mitigate the impact on the animal.

So let’s say there’s a new Joe Exotic inspired by Tiger King who wants to open up his own Tiger King Zoo. All he needs to do in order to be in compliance with ESW, CBW, and the US FWS is to submit a plan detailing how he wants to buy and possess Tigers in his zoo in order to increase the number of tigers in the world so they won’t go extinct. Then he has to explain how his Zoo and the transfer of the tigers to his zoo would have a minimal impact on the tigers themselves. That seems to be all it takes to own or possess a tiger at the Federal level.

What about the State of Florida? Florida has its own regulations that are a bit more restrictive than the Federal government’s. The law dealing with endangered or threatened wild animal possession is found at Fla. Stat. § 379.3761 and divides animals in 3 categories: Categories I, II, and III. Category I animals are the most protected animals, Category II are less protected, and Category III are the least restricted.  Tigers, no surprise, are in Category I and the most protected.

In order to obtain a permit to possess a Category I animal, the person or organization must obtain a permit by:

  1. Having no convictions of any crimes involving animals;
  2. Demonstrate 1 year of prior experience caring, handling, feeding etc. of the same or similar type animal,
    1. Must have no less than 2 references that will attest to this;
  3. Need to have a degree higher than high school in a related scientific, biological, zoological degree,
    1. May substitute for 6 months or 500 hours of experience.

The requirements for Class II and III are just relaxed from there. Anyone issued a permit are subject to inspection. These inspectors can remove wildlife from the owner if the premises is deemed:

  1. Unsanitary,
  2. Unsafe to the public or
  3. The wildlife is being mistreated, neglected, or in violation of any 828 criminal statute involving animals.

So if you were thinking about owning your own tiger in Florida, after you obtain your Federal permit you have to get a Florida permit. To do that you have to demonstrate experience in caring for the animals and have a degree that specializes in wildlife or biology in some way. That said you can get around the degree requirement by having 6 months or 500 hours of experience. There is an issue in this statute as it doesn’t specify whether the 6 months/500 hours of experience is over and above the 1 year of care requirement. It’s worth mentioning the Florida law does link to the criminal code which incorporates cruelty to animals. This allows for Florida to revoke any permits if the handler/caregiver is found being abusive or cruel to animals.

In Tiger King, there is an issue on when and how the tigers were being killed, breeding the tigers, and cub petting. At the Federal level, if you qualify for the exception, it would seem legal to sell tigers so long as the transaction fell within the exception. It stands to reason that each participant to the sale/purchase would have to be approved by the federal government. As far as euthanizing and cub petting goes, there does not seem to be any Federal law making those actions illegal or providing any guidance or regulation.

However, in Florida, Fl. Stat. § 828.065 governs euthanasia of animal and requires that all animals to be euthanized must:

  1. Be done generally via lethal injections and
  2. Performed by a veterinarian.

In regards to the cub petting, if this practice was found to be in violation of Florida’s cruelty to animals statute then the action could be criminal and, thus, punishable.

Being that Joe Exotic’s zoo was in Oklahoma, the Florida laws would not apply to him. If he was in Florida and he used a gun to unceremoniously execute his tigers, that would be in violation of Florida law and grounds for the loss of his permits for his cats as well as criminal sanctions.

In regards to the cub petting, we found no law that expressly forbids this practice. If the zoo wanted to include cub petting in it’s activities then it would need to include it in its plan to the Federal Government and must be sure cub petting is not considered animal cruelty under Florida.

We hope this sheds a little bit of light on the laws that the characters in Tiger King were operating under and continue to operate under. While much of the behavior of the people in Tiger King were distasteful, it is unclear if shooting tigers or cub petting in Oklahoma is against Oklahoma law. If Mr. Exotic had opened his zoo in Florida, the action of cub petting probably isn’t illegal however the execution of his animals by any means other than lethal injection by himself would be.