Animal Welfare and Conservation Groups Petition USDA to Prohibit Public Contact with Dangerous Wild Animals

On the one-year anniversary of the Zanesville, Ohio, tragedy in which about 50 big cats, bears, primates and other animals were released from cages at a private menagerie, The Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Fund, International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Fund for Animals, Born Free USA, Big Cat Rescue, and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries filed a legal petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prohibit public contact with big cats, bears and primates under the Animal Welfare Act.

Unscrupulous exhibitors in locations across the country house baby tigers, lions and bears to be handled and photographed by paying customers. After the baby animals outgrow their use as photography or play props, sometimes after just a few months, they are often discarded. Some of the animals end up being warehoused at shoddy roadside zoos, at pseudo-sanctuaries or in the hands of unqualified people like Terry Thompson, the man who released the animals in Zanesville. While public exhibition of exotic wildlife is regulated by USDA, public contact with the animals is largely unmonitored.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture must prohibit the public handling of these dangerous, wild animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “This cycle of breeding, exploiting, then dumping baby animals after a few months fuels the exotic pet trade, puts animals at risk, endangers the public, and creates a burden for both law enforcement and nonprofit sanctuaries.”

For fees ranging from $10 to $500, members of the public can pet, feed, train, pose with, play with and even swim with wild and exotic animals. To facilitate public handling, the animals are pulled from the nurturing care of their protective mothers shortly after birth—an inhumane and unhealthy practice that can lead to lifelong physical and psychological problems and even death. It is well established that primates raised in socially-isolated conditions develop self-destructive and aberrant behaviors, and the same issues apply to big cats and bears.

USDA regulations and enforcement policies allow harmful practice of handling infant animals to flourish, and encourage reckless breeding. For example, USDA guidance documents suggest that public contact with big cat cubs between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks is permissible, which not only creates an incentive for an endless cycle of tiger cub births, but also causes a surplus of captive adult tigers that are warehoused in roadside zoos and private menageries. USDA’s vague policies also threaten public safety, as exhibitors routinely allow public contact with their surplus of older tiger cubs. An HSUS undercover investigation at the GW Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma documented numerous instances of dangerous public contact with older tigers, including a September 2011 incident in which a 20-week-old tiger named Dre knocked down and bit a small child.

The coalition of seven groups is calling on the agency to issue revised regulations that prohibit public contact and close encounters with big cats, bears and primates, regardless of the age of the animals.

A patchwork of state laws govern the possession of dangerous wild animals and leave many communities vulnerable to tragedies like Zanesville. Nevada, South Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama currently do not have any restrictions on the private possession of dangerous wild animals.


  • Pulling newborn big cats, bears, and primates from their mothers is traumatic for both the mother, who mourns the loss of her offspring, as well as the baby who is deprived of proper nutrition and maternal care.
  • Young animals who are not yet fully immunized and with weak immune systems may be exposed to deadly diseases and subjected to stressful conditions associated with transport, rough and excessive public handling, as well as physical abuse from handlers attempting to keep playful or reluctant animals under control.
  • Due to the varied sizes of primates, large animals such as chimpanzees may be used for public handling until they are about 7 years old, while smaller monkeys, such as capuchins, may be subjected to such mistreatment for their entire 30-plus year lifespan. Primates can also spread dangerous viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections to people.
  • Some discarded animals end up in the pet trade while others fall victim to exotic meat markets. For example, Wild Acres Ranch provides cubs for photos with the public at the Kalahari Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, and sells meat from slaughtered black bears and African lions.
  • The HSUS has uncovered evidence that at least 70 exhibitors in 25 states currently or recently engaged in the harmful practice of allowing the public to handle big cats, bears, and/or primates.
  • Accredited sanctuaries for wild animals are shouldering the burden created by an industry that continuously breeds and dumps long-lived animals with specialized, costly needs. For example, it costs up to $10,000 per year to provide food and veterinary care for a single tiger.

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