PHILADELPHIA — U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has been a foe of Joe Exotic for years.
Fitzpatrick, a Republican who represents Bucks County, Pa., is a lead co-sponsor of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban the private ownership of lions, leopards, tigers and related species. It would also ban circuses and zoos from allowing direct contact with cubs, such as petting or feeding. There are currently more tigers in captivity in the United States than in the wild.
Fitzpatrick said he first became aware of tiger trading and cub breeding as an FBI agent more than a decade ago.
“I did a lot of international travel and saw the nexus of how the tiger trade was linked with organized crime, financed arms trades, drug trades,” he said.
The bill has languished since being introduced last year, but Fitzpatrick said he’s been inundated with calls since the documentary Tiger King aired on Netflix. The seven-part series features Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, a country singer, onetime presidential candidate and owner of hundreds of big cats.
“We’ve had such a hard time getting the public’s attention,” Fitzpatrick said. “Now, every day, it’s ‘Tiger King’ or coronavirus.”
Fitzpatrick said the easiest way to move the bill forward is to get 290 co-sponsors, which would trigger a full House vote. He’s at 227, including 12 of Pennsylvania’s 18 representatives.
The six who have not signed on are Republicans Daniel Meuser, Scott Perry, Fred Keller, John Joyce, Glenn Thompson and Mike Kelly.
Pennsylvania’s senators — Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey — have not signed on as sponsors to a companion bill in their chamber.
“We are grateful that twelve bipartisan members of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation have co-sponsored,” the Humane Society said. “Given the abuses shown in ‘Tiger King,’ we hope all Pennsylvania members will be motivated to cosponsor.”
Tiger ownership and breeding is currently regulated by states. Some ban it outright, like New Jersey. Others have strict permitting requirements, like Pennsylvania, and some are the “wild west,” Fitzpatrick said.
The bill would protect both animals and people, advocates argue. In 2011, a 450-pound Bengal tiger attacked a woman at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park in Dauphin County when she stuck her arm into its cage.
Fitzpatrick has not met one of the bill’s most public backers, Carole Baskin, a tiger sanctuary owner who is also not-so-subtly accused in the Netflix series of murdering her husband and feeding him to the tigers.
“I haven’t finished the show,” Fitzpatrick said. “I haven’t seen how the Carole story ends yet.”
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