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Is It Really Legal To Buy A Bunch Of Lions And Tigers Like Joe Exotic And Start A Private Zoo?

Joe Exotic, the imprisoned star of "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," ran a zoo that at one point had at least 187 big cats. Apparently, that was completely fine.

By Gina Tron
Where Is 'Tiger King' Joe Exotic Now?

Exotic animal breeder Joe Exotic — born Joseph Schreibvogel — ran his own zoo in the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," which, among many other things, raised ethical issues about his treatment of animals. He bragged that his park housed 187 big cats, along with numerous gators and primates.

The docuseries pointed out the startling fact that there are likely more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are running wild in the entire world. Many of these tigers are kept as pets by Americans or held in zoos like Exotic’s.

While Exotic was convicted of plotting the murder of longtime rival and controversial animal activist Carole Baskin, who was a vocal critic of Exotic's cub-breeding and cub-petting practices, he was also found guilty of a series of wildlife violations, including falsifying records and killing five tigers. But not for running the zoo itself.

Prospective zookeepers must first obtain a license from the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The rules for acquiring exotic animals are governed by the Animal Welfare Act, which is the only federal law which regulates the treatment of animals, though only warmblooded ones, that are exhibited in zoos. All that's required is to fill out a form and pay a fee.

“It’s super easy to get one of those," Brittany Peet, the PETA Foundation's director of captive animal law enforcement, told Oxygen.com. "The requirements for getting one are minimal."

She said that to meet the requirements, zookeepers basically need to make cages large enough for their animals to stand up in, turn around in and take a few steps in each direction.

"We almost never see people being denied Animal Welfare Act licenses and that’s really dangerous because once you get an Animal Welfare Act license, the USDA’s position is that once you have one they can’t revoke it or fail to renew it even if you have dozens or even hundreds of Animal Welfare Act violations," Peet said, adding that a license can only be revoked if the USDA files a lawsuit against an exhibitor.

In addition to obtaining the federal license, the licensee must comply with state laws as well, USDA public affairs specialist R. Andre Bell told Oxygen.com. On the state side, regulation of wild animal ownership varies from state to state, the BBC reported in 2018. Four states are completely unregulated, the Washington Post reported last year. Peet said that in addition to the four states that have no regulations, six states don’t ban or regulate keeping big cats as pets. Oklahoma is one such state, only regulating native species that are kept as pets. In other words, if an Oklahoma resident obtains a federal Animal Welfare Act license, they do not need to get an additional state license to run a zoo unless that zoo has animals that are native to the United States, like a black bear. 

Peet said that other states with stricter laws, like Ohio, do require a zookeeper to get a state permit after getting their USDA license. As the docuseries noted, several states have banned or restricted exotic pets following horrific incidents. In 2011, Ohio man Terry Thompson let his 56 exotic animals loose before killing himself, which resulted in law enforcement shooting them all dead. As a result, laws were passed the following year in the state to enact stricter regulations on the private ownership of exotic animals, including the requirement of permits, the Dayton Daily News reported in 2017.

Both Bell and Peet told Oxygen.com that the Animal Welfare Act does not supersede state laws. 

"The USDA has concurrent jurisdiction with state and local law enforcement in relation to the Animal Welfare Act but states are allowed to have laws and regulations that are as or more strict than federal law," Peet said.

Therefore, if local law is stricter than federal in one's state, the local law takes precedent.

Baskin hopes to change the lack of consistent regulations across the country. She has been trying to get the Big Cat Safety Act passed nationwide, which she said would outlaw "owning big cats as pets and stopping exploitative roadside zoos from offering cub petting and photo ops."

"Tiger King" is available to stream on Netflix.

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