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Last day to tell the federal government to tighten rules on tiger ownership

October 21, 2011 |  8:00 am

Bengal tiger in Nicaragua National Zoo
Terry Thompson, the Ohio man who set his wild animals loose before committing suicide, had 18 tigers in his menagerie. All were among the 49 animals killed by law enforcement officers grappling Tuesday night and Wednesday morning with the public safety threat.

The lax Ohio laws on wild animal ownership weren’t going to stop Thompson from collecting as many tigers as he wanted. Yet all existing subspecies of tigers in the wild are endangered and protected by U.S. government law and international treaties. Shouldn’t those laws have stopped him?

Maybe not. If Thompson’s tigers were, as some reports have said, pure Bengal tigers that could trace their lineage to the wild — or if they had been caught in the wild -- federal laws should have prohibited Thompson from owning them. At least, he would have needed federal authorization to have them.

But tigers bred in captivity of mixed or unknown lineage are called “generic tigers.” That’s what most privately held tigers in this country are. Animal welfare advocates believe there are far more tigers living in the U.S. as private pets than exist in all of the wild. (An estimated 4,000 remain in the wild.)

Currently, generic tigers are exempted from the regulations that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces for endangered species. But that may be changing. The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a rule that would regulate generic tigers as it does endangered cats. People holding generic tigers would have to be permitted and registered and report regularly on their cats. All that might have gotten Thompson stopped.

The new regulations, embraced by animal welfare advocates, would help the Fish and Wildlife Service to control captive breeding and limit it to efforts that help conservation in the wild. With tigers roaming people’s backyards, “people are less inclined to be troubled by the perilous state of tigers in the wild,” says Adam Roberts, vice president of Born Free USA. New reporting regulations would also reveal specific data on who’s keeping tigers and where.

The U.S. government is accepting comments on the proposed rule change through today on this website. This is one promising step toward regulating out-of-control private tiger ownership in the U.S.

RELATED:

Exotic animal laws called into question after Ohio killings.

State laws on exotic animal ownership at a glance.

-- Carla Hall

Photo: A Bengal Tiger at the National Zoo of Nicaragua. Credit: EPA / Mario Lopez

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