The issue of whether to regulate the ownership of “big cats and nonhuman primates" drew fierce debate at a House committee hearing, as animal rights advocates said that unregulated large animals pose a threat to public safety, while owners of tigers, lions and other animals said they already face enough regulation by federal authorities.
House Bill 1015, by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would ban the ownership of animals including cheetahs, cougars, leopards, lions, jaguars, tigers, orangutans and gorillas in counties with populations greater than 75,000 people. While it would still allow zoos and animal shelters to keep the creatures, the bill would create a fine of $200 to $4,000 for individuals caught owning such animals. Current owners would be allowed to keep their animals, but they would not be able to breed them or acquire new ones. And county authorities will be tasked with responding to tips that someone illegally owns a large cat or primate.
"When these animals are not adequately cared for, they can spread diseases and cause fatalities," Guillen said at the hearing of the House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which he chairs. "The ownership of wild animals are a serious problem and a threat to human safety." He pointed to numerous incidents of people in Texas being mauled by large cats and primates. He also said his bill was in part a response to a 2011 incident in Zanesville, Ohio, where more than 50 exotic animals escaped a private reserve after their owner opened their cages. Most of the animals were killed.
"We're worried about another Zanesville, Ohio," said Katie Jarl, director of the Texas chapter of the Humane Society of the United States.
Several owners of primates offered their support of Guillen’s bill, which was left pending in committee, after the representative changed language so that some small primates would no longer be banned. After all, said Janice Metzger, the legislative chair of Texas Primate Owners United, "there are some primates that only weigh a pound."
But some who own and work with tigers and other large cats said they are responsible and already face regulation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which began inspecting owners of exotic animals after passage of the federal Animal Welfare Act in 1966.
"You have to have the right caging. You have to have the right fencing and the right food," said Bobbi Colorado, who trains animals for film and television appearances. "Ninety-five percent of people who own exotics [including large cats and primates] are responsible. It's just like parents where you have a few who don't take care of their kids."
"There are a lot of dogs — including Chihuahuas — that do way worse damage than exotics," she said.
Since 2001, Texas law has required that owners of numerous varieties of exotic animals register their animals with a municipal or county animal control offices, leaving it up to local governments to regulate the ownership. Travis and Bexar counties have banned the ownership of such animals outright, while Harris County, the state's most populous county, allows it. Some small counties do not have animal control authorities and rely on the sheriff's department to monitor the ownership of such animals.
The current laws are strong, said Marcus Cook, who exhibited tigers as a part of his business, called ZooCats.
"The day of the so-called pet tiger has gone away," Cook told the committee, explaining that the new law would create headaches for legitimate owners of large cats. He said Guillen's bill is well-intended but that current federal regulations are already effective.
In 2012, the USDA found that ZooCats “repeatedly endangered the lives of their customers and employees, as well as the lives of their animals.” A federal judge allowed Cook to continue to keep his animals as pets.
The Legislative Budget Board, which looks at the financial impact of pending legislation, estimated that “there could be significant costs to a municipality or a county related to the enforcement, seizure and impoundment of a big cat or nonhuman primate,” but added that these costs “could likely be absorbed within existing resources” and paid for by the fines.
“It's easier to get a tiger off Craigslist than it is to go adopt a kitten,” Jarl said in an interview last month. “Of course it's a massive public safety issue. I doubt many people know there are lions and tigers living next to them.”