How ‘Tiger King’ Helped Kill the Industry It Made Famous

The lucrative little petting industry that Netflix docuseries Tiger King spotlight is now illegal in the United States.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act, which applies to lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or any hybrid of these species, was signed into law today with the President’s signature. The law project prohibits the practice of caressing children and any new breeding of big cats for private possession. The public is also prohibited from having close contact with the animals, such as taking selfies while bottle-feeding baby tigers.

Approved zoos, sanctuaries and academic institutions housing felines can continue to operate. Facilities can still exhibit their animals but cannot offer hands-on experiences to the public. Private owners of big cats can also keep their animals, but no new breeding will be allowed and they will not be able to obtain more cats. Owners must notify the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their animals within 180 days of the law’s passage.

Previous versions of this animal welfare bill, first introduced ten years ago, stagnated until Tiger King. The House of Representatives passed the bill in July and the White House publicly supported him. It cleared the Senate earlier this month.

Kate Dylewsky, senior policy advisor for government affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute, says the Netflix docuseries is sensationalist and “should have focused on animal suffering.” But, she adds, it has raised public awareness of animal welfare issues in the petting industry and was “ultimately a beneficial factor in getting the bill across the finish line.”

With the proper licenses, breeding and showing big cats and petting up to a certain age is legal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, said licensed establishments can expose bear cubs to about eight weeks and always comply with regulatory requirements, even if the agency does not encourage it. Contact with cubs less than one month old, “including feeding and handling the audience”, was banned.

Still, much of the oversight of the industry falls to states, in part because the USDA does not regulate wild animals kept as private pets. Twelve states had already banned public contact with big cats, others regulated the practice, and a few had no regulations at all, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The organization estimates that the vast majority of the approximately 4,500 captive big cats in the United States are kept in roadside zoos, and that an unknown number are likely kept as pets, either illegally or in states without applicable laws. (Learn more: Captive tigers in the United States outnumber those living in the wild. It is a problem.)

An endless breeding of young ones

Selfies with felines, like Tiger King clearly, have been an important source of income. But animal welfare advocates have sharply criticized business owners for, among other things, the fast-breeding lion cubs and separate newborns from their mothers for tourist photos.

“It’s common to use cubs for photo ops until they are too big to hold,” says Sara Amundson, chair of the Humane Society’s Legislative Fund. “They are then thrown away or sold, which just perpetuates the cycle,” she says, adding that unwanted cats often languish in poor quality facilities or are even killed. Others have ended up as pets in yards and basements and can pose a threat to public safety that local law enforcement and communities are not equipped to handle. Since 1990, more than 400 dangerous incidents involving captive felines have occurred, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Some abandoned animals may be smuggled onto the black market for their body parts, perpetuating demand for products such as tiger bone wine and medicinal paste that pose a major threat to wild tigers, says director Leigh Henry of wildlife policy at the World Wildlife Fund. The objects are sought in China and elsewhere. “Given the lack of regulation, it would be easy for these tigers to enter the illegal tiger trade,” she says.

There are only around 4,000 tigers left in the wild today.

The thousands of captive tigers in the United States have been a source of contention during international discussions over the closure of tiger farms in the United States. China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, said Henri. Some countries are wondering why the United States hasn’t shut down its own industry. Passing the new bill, she said, “removes that point of deviation and we can hopefully make progress.”

Many facilities highlighted in Tiger King were forced to abandon their animals due to violations of the Animal Protection Act, which reduced the number of well-known petting offers. Today, according to the Humane Society, only two U.S. exhibitors promote petting for selfies, although others may offer them without publicly promoting them.

Amundson urges all big cat owners who no longer wish to keep their animals to place them in animal-friendly sanctuaries accredited by the World Federal Animal Sanctuaries.

This article was first published on December 9, 2022 and was updated on December 20, 2022 to reflect that the bill has now been signed into law.

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. A 2019 article in National Geographic by explorers Sharon Guynup and Steve Winter and a subsequent report by Wildlife Watch highlighted captive tigers in the United States. The magazine article was distributed to all members of Congress. Read more stories from Wildlife Watch hereand send tips, comments and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the nonprofit mission of the National Geographic Society at natgeo.com/impact.


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