Houston

Ownership Of Wild Cats Could Be Restricted By Proposed Federal Bill

Activist groups continue to push for a nationwide solution to decrease to number of privately owned exotic animals — like the tiger who recently got loose in Houston.

A tiger rests in a cage in France on Feb. 21, 2021.

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An off-duty Waller County deputy came face-to-face with a unusual sight last month: a tiger on the prowl in West Houston, emerging from a nearby home.

The cat was quickly taken away by its owner and declared missing for nearly a week. It was eventually found and sent to an animal sanctuary in North Texas.

The cat’s owner, Victor Hugo Cuevas, 28, was charged with evading arrest and is currently out on bond for a previous murder case in Fort Bend County. But no charges pertaining to the actual ownership of the cat have been levied against the man — despite the existence of a city ordinance that forbids ownership of wild animals.

Animal rights activists like Carson Barylak with the International Fund for Animal Welfare say local policies aren’t enough to deter people from potentially participating in the exotic animal trade.

“This is fundamentally a transboundary issue,” she said. “While we applaud any action at the municipal and state level, federal action is going to be needed.”

A proposed law currently in the U.S. House of Representatives could do just that.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act, a piece of legislation being considered by congressional lawmakers, would restrict private ownership of big cats and unregulated animal exhibits nationwide, and could make it easier to prosecute people who keep exotic animals in residential areas.

Additionally, according to Barylak, the bill would also protect potential owners due to the increased restrictions.

"The sad truth is that these animals are frequently kept in homes, as pets, where they aren’t properly cared for, and where people aren’t properly protected from the animal,” she said. “They simply aren’t qualified to properly care for them.”

Houston Police announced Saturday night, May 15, 2021, that they found India, a missing tiger.

The bipartisan bill failed after reaching the U.S. Senate during the 116th U.S. Congress in 2020, but was reintroduced in January by U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Quigley told Houston Public Media that the bill currently has almost 200 bipartisan cosponsors in the House.

“We are extremely optimistic that the bill will receive enough support to pass the House again this Congress and will receive a vote in the Senate,” the statement read.

The legislation could affect Texas’ exotic animal trade industry substantially, according to Wayne Pacelle, the president of Animal Wellness Action.

Texas is home to among the highest number of privately owned exotic animals, Pacelle said. That’s likely due to hundreds of unregulated facilities in Texas’ Hill Country.

“Texas is almost certainly the No. 1 state for private ownership of dangerous, exotic animals,” he said. “The state law is insufficient to deal with this.”

According to the city’s code of ordinances, procession of a wild animal is prohibited unless the animal is being kept at a public zoo, at a federally recognized shelter, or at a medical school for research purposes, among other specifications.

Violation of the ordinance can result in a misdemeanor charge punishable by a fine up to $2,000 for each wild animal and each day the animal is possessed.

Outside of city limits, owners in unincorporated Harris County are required to register their wild animals with the county, or face a potential fine for each animal that violates the ruling and each day the animal is kept.

However, some have argued that no matter what the law is, residents shouldn’t own big cats.

When asked at a press conference about his thoughts regarding the escaped tiger, Mayor Sylvester Turner laughed.

“Do you really need an ordinance to tell people that you just shouldn’t have a tiger in the city of Houston?,” he said.

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