Letting the Cat out of the Bag (Part I)

Private exotic animal ownership in the United States poses many questions on the international, federal, state, and local level.  A legislative exception for Tony – a tiger in Louisiana who shares his name with the cereal mascot, regulatory shortcomings in USFWS legislation, and legal challenges over ambitious Ohio legislation rooted in a massive exotic animal disaster all pose many questions: What is to be done about America’s exotic animals?  To what extent are such animals considered property?  Is it possible to control private property?  These questions and more contrast the constitution and science against legislation intended to protect humans from tigers and tigers from humans.           

The largest tiger population in the world is in the United States.  How did such a large quantity of an endangered “big cat” come to be in the United States?  The answer lies in the lack of regulation on tiger ownership.   Domestic tiger possession in the United States goes back to the early 19th century.  The feline was first featured in zoos and the famous traveling circuses of the 1830s.[1]   They became an instant success with the public and a must have for attracting visitors.   It was common practice up until the 1980s for zoos to prolifically breed their tigers in order to have tiger cubs to put on display: This practice lead to the widespread selling of excess zoo-bred tigers, which in turn bred domestically.[2] An early instance of such a sale was the 1934 purchase of “Mike the Tiger”, Louisiana State University's first mascot tiger.  He was bought from the Little Rock Zoo for a little over $13,000 dollars in today’s figures[3].  Despite zoos stopping their breeding programs, tigers became increasingly accessible and affordable as pets to the general public.  As more and more tigers were born to private individuals rather than zoological organizations, their price rapidly plummeted to under $400 dollars in 2003.[4]  

In 1900, the Federal Government passed the Lacey Act.  It was the first law that prohibited the trade of wildlife, plants and animals protected under international, federal or state law.[5]  The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 was the first substantial legislation specifically regulating tiger ownership.[6].  This act federally protected the Siberian and Bengal Tiger, both endangered species.  The United States is also a participant of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prevents tigers in the United States from being shipped abroad.  Furthermore, any part of their body, including their fur, cannot be sold.

In 1994, additional domestic regulation of the sale of tiger parts came in effect through the “Rhino and Tiger Conversation Act”. It outlined specific law enforcement action including fines, searches and seizures pursuant to CITES and the ESA.[7]   The Captive Wildlife Safety Act of 2003, further added regulations to tiger ownership.  This legislation was a response to the criminal ownership of a full-grown tiger in a Harlem, New York City apartment [8]. The Zanesville Exotic Animal incident in 2011 resulted in the death of 18 tigers after their owner released his menagerie of exotic animals before killing himself.  Since the following incidents there has been an increase in new legislation restricting tiger ownership[9].  Such legislation was subject to many legal challenges and is inherently complex as it regulates not only an animal, but one that is endangered and requires a high degree of care.  Thus, there is a high incentive for tiger owners to fight back, raising objections regarding constitutional rights and the rights of tiger owners who acquired tigers before restrictive laws.  Furthermore, as an endangered species, the illicit trade of tiger parts remains a lucrative business in the United States.   Additional legislative complexities emerged due to the unregulated breeding of tigers with other, large, feline species.  Notable examples of such include the emergence of ligers, hybrids between female tigers and male lions, and tigons, hybrids between male tigers and female lions.[10]  Where do such "hybrids" fall under the regulatory umbrella, as they technically do not belong to the species protected under the aforementioned legislation?

At the moment, the outright prohibition of private tiger ownership in the United States is on a state-by-state basis.  A notable instance of the complexities between state and county law regarding tiger ownership is apparent in the legal case of a privately owned tiger in Louisiana. “Tony the Tiger” (which, unfortunately, is not the Frosted Flakes Mascot) is kept in a cage at the “Tiger Truck Stop” in Grosse Tête. He is in the midst of a legal battle that involves the owner-operator of the Truck Stop.  In 2006, Louisiana banned the private ownership of exotic animals including tigers.  Tony the Tiger, however, was owned by the truck stop starting in 2001 and thus, the owner’s property rights became a pressing question.  Tony was allowed to stay with his owner, because of a legal exception for existing owners[11]  However, another legal hurdle awaited: there were local laws that prevented Tony's continued habitation at the truck stop. 

 Iberville parish, the equivalent of a county government, had an ordinance that prevented the ownership of big cats. In 2008 when the truck stop sought a permit from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) to be in compliance with the 2006 state law, the application was denied based on the violation of existing parish law enacted on August 15, 2006.   Tony’s owner filed a lawsuit against the Iberville Parish who then retroactively exempted Tony.  On December 10, 2010, a year-long permit from the LDWF was issued. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) challenged this exemption by filing a lawsuit against the State of Louisiana and the LDWF alleging that the LDWF did not enforce the law while Tony was illegally possessed in regards to Parish law starting August 15, 2006. The ALDF claimed that the LDWF endangered public safety and the welfare of an endangered species through their inaction[12]. 

On May 6, 2011, the court ruled that the permit that the LDWF had issued was to be revoked and granted a permanent injunction preventing the LDWF from granting anymore permits to the truck stop.  It was established that the truck stop did not meet LDWF criteria for a permit on August 15, 2006.  This was due to the enaction of the parish ordinance that made the Tiger illegal to possess and thus ineligible for a state permit.  Thus, Tony was not considered exempt.[13]  In 2014, new legislation was passed by the Louisiana Senate and signed into law by the governor of Louisiana legislating that: “Previous ownership shall include persons who obtained their animal by lawful means and continuously possessed their animal since August 15, 2006”[14].  This time the exception would apply retroactively to Tony the Tiger.   


[1] "Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1994 (16 U.S.C. 5306)." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2015.

[2] "Big Cats Kepts as Pets Across U.S., Despite Risk." National Geographic 28 Oct. 2010: n. pag. Print.

[3] Baker, David. "History of Mike." Mike the Tiger. N.p., 2005. Web. 24 May 2015.

[4] "Big Cats Kepts as Pets Across U.S., Despite Risk." National Geographic 28 Oct. 2010: n. pag. Print.

[5] "Lacy Act." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2015.

[6] "ESA Basics." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. N.p., Jan. 2013. Web. 23 May 2015.

[7] "Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1994 (16 U.S.C. 5306)." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2015.

[8] "Captive Wildlife Safety Act: What Big Cat Owners Need to Know." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Aug. 2007. Web. 24 May 2015.

Feuer, Alan, and Jason George. "Police Subdue Tiger in Harlem Apartment." The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Oct. 2003. Web. 24 May 2015.

Captive Wildlife Safety Act., 16 U.S.C. 3371 (2003)

[9] Ballard, Mark. "Senate Says Tony the Tiger Can Stay." The Advocate [Baton Rouge, Louisiana] 14 May 2014: n. pag. Print.

Johnson, Alan. "Ohio Ready to Enforce Exotic-animal Law." The Columbus Dispatch 26 Dec. 2013: n. pag. Print.

[10] "11 Amazing Hybrid Animals." Mother Nature Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Animal Legal Defense Fund v. State, 2012 CA 0971 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/25/13)

[13] Ibid.

[14] LA. Section 1. R.S. 56:6(31) (2014)