Accident to volunteer emphasized need for the bill
TAMPA, Florida; WASHINGTON D.C.–– December 3, 2020 began as a very bad day for Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin.
But it was an even worse day for five-year volunteer Candy Couser, 69, of Land O’Lakes, Florida, mauled by Kimba the tiger at the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary during feeding time early that morning.
“This happened on the day our federal bill to ban cub handling and private possession comes to the House floor for a vote,” Baskin mentioned on Facebook.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, however, finally raised at 7:23 p.m., late in a session that considered 23 bills altogether, passed on a roll call vote, 272-114, with 45 abstentions.
Favoring the Big Cat Public Safety Act were all 224 Democrats present for the vote and 48 Republicans. Opposed were 113 Republicans and one independent.
Big Cat Public Safety Act goes to the Senate
“We are thrilled that the Big Cat Public Safety Act passed the House with bipartisan support,” Baskin posted to Facebook, “to protect big cats from abuse, the public and first responders from injuries and death, and the tiger in the wild from extinction. None of these important goals are partisan in any way,” Baskin said, “and we hope the Senate,” with a Republican majority which has blocked almost every bill introduced by Democrats during the 116th Congress, “will follow suit quickly to make it into law.”
The Couser mauling, mentioned by at least one of the Congressional Representatives who spoke in favor of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, may have been among the reasons why the bill finally cleared the House, after repeated failures.
“The fact that, despite our intense safety protocols and excellent record of safety, an injury like this can occur, just confirms the inherent danger in dealing with these animals,” Baskin posted to Facebook earlier.
Bill would ban private big cat ownership
“We need the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” Baskin emphasized, “to eliminate having them untracked in backyards around the country, ending up in sanctuaries where wonderful people like Candy Couser have committed themselves to providing care for those discarded by the pay-to-play industry,” by which Baskin meant facilities at which visitors pay to play with cubs.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, repeatedly introduced into the House of Representatives since 2007 by a variety of sponsors, would––if passed by U.S. Senate, and signed into law by the U.S. President Donald Trump––prohibit the private ownership of tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and pumas, as well as any hybrid of these species.
“Facilities that already own big cats would be allowed to keep them,” explained Bloomberg political writer Megan U. Boyanton on November 30, 2020, “but the bill would restrict public contact with the animals. Although it was introduced before Tiger King’s debut,” Boyanton mentioned, referencing the six-part Netflix video series about Baskin’s running battle against big cat breeder/exhibitors “Joe Exotic,” Kevin “Bhagavan” Antle, Jeff Lowe, and Tim Stark that aired in March and April 2020, “the legislation’s supporters say the show exposed the need for the bill.”
(See Carole Baskin & Big Cat Rescue win custody of “Tiger King” Joe Exotic’s tigers and “Joe Exotic” gets 22 years in a cage for murder plot, plus Tim Stark: 120-count conviction, yet roadside zoo remains open.)
“Harmful bureaucratic layers of regulation” claim Republicans
However, Boyanton continued, “Six Republicans on the [House Natural Resources Committee] wrote that the legislation would create ‘harmful bureaucratic layers of regulation’ for facilities that already own the animals. They added that it would ‘hinder conservation and education efforts by destroying structured big cat breeding programs.’”
In truth there are no privately owned and operated “structured big cat breeding programs” that are recognized for making a positive contribution to “conservation and education by either reputable big cat conservation organizations such as Panthera or by the government wildlife agencies of nations in which big cats are native.
“There’s nothing in the bill that stops breeding. It just stops the cub-petting, which drives a lot of the breeding,” said Howard Baskin, husband of Carole Baskin and legal advisor for Big Cat Rescue.
Ed Case saved the bill & the day
Stalled in the House Natural Resources Committee since June 8, 2020, the Big Cat Public Safety Act received another chance at passage by the 116th Congress in a “lame duck” session convened to wrap up unfinished business.
Ed Case, Democrat, representing the first Congressional District in Hawaii, consisting of Honolulu and suburbs, “moved to suspend the rules and pass the bill, as amended, HR 1380 — ‘To amend the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981 to clarify provisions enacted by the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, to further the conservation of certain wildlife species, and for other purposes.’”
Speaking in support of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, along with Case, were fellow Democrats including bill sponsor Mike Quigley, U.S. Representative for Illinois’s fifth Congressional district, consisting of the north side of Chicago and western suburbs, and Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Representative for Oregon’s third Congressional district, including most of Portland east of the Willamette River.
Also endorsing the Big Cat Public Safety Act was former FBI agent Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican who represents the Pennsylvania first Congressional district, including several northern Philadelphia suburbs.
21 deaths & 300 maulings since 1990
The speakers favoring the Big Cat Public Safety Act recited statistics including 21 deaths and as many as 300 maulings at big cat facilities since 1990, including the Couser mauling that very day.
Members of Congress had already been advised that Florida, as of 2016, had 101 USDA-licensed big cat exhibitors; California had 43; and Texas had 40.
Among them, these facilities, and others in other states, have two to three times as many tigers as remain in the wild.
Along with Carole Baskin, Animal Wellness Action lobbyist Wayne Pacelle was optimistic.
“Positioned for action”
The Big Cat Public Safety Act “is positioned for action now that the single notable organization opposing the measure has in recent weeks withdrawn its opposition,” Pacelle blogged. “That group is the Zoological Association of America, a relatively new zoo and aquarium consortium of about 60 institutions,” most of them privately owned.
“Before Tiger King,” Pacelle wrote, “a handful of Republican lawmakers worked to stall the bill by creating a hyped-up blood feud between the Zoological Association of America and the much more established American Zoo & Aquarium Association,” which has represented almost every major public zoo in the U.S. since 1960, and “has long supported H.R. 1380. Now that debate is moot,” Pacelle alleged, “with the Zoological Association of America having surveyed its 60 or so members and found that 59 of them do not favor public interactions with big cats and other dangerous carnivores.”
Dan Bishop & the Antles
But the Zoological Association of America apparently did not make that point clear to Dan Bishop, the Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the ninth district of North Carolina, home base of Kevin “Doc” Antle, who owns and operates several roadside zoos while styling himself “Mahamayavia Bhagavan Antle.”
ANIMALS 24-7 has not discovered any relationship between Kevin Antle and W. James Antle III, a prominent conservative commentator best known as author of the 2013 tome Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?
Bishop, however, appeared to channel the views of W. James Antle III in rising to denounce the Big Cat Public Safety Act as “an unwarranted federal intrusion into the rights and responsibilities of wildlife exhibitors.”
A two-thirds majority vote was required to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act under the suspended rules. The roll call vote saw it pass by 70%.
Update on Candy Couser
The most recent available information on Couser’s condition, meanwhile, relayed to Big Cat Rescue by her husband Charles E. Couser and posted to the Big Cat Rescue web site in mid-afternoon on December 3, 2020, was that she was “going into surgery soon,” after her upper arm was reportedly almost entirely severed.
“She can move her fingers and her arm is broken in three places,” the Big Cat Rescue web posting said. “Her shoulder is badly damaged though. She is conscious, but sedated, and when the Florida Wildlife officers visited her, they said she was able to tell them what happened, which is what she told our volunteers who responded to the scene.
“Kimba Tiger’s rabies and other vaccines are all up to date,” the posting continued, “but he is being kept on quarantine for 30 days anyway to keep an eye on him. While it is our understanding that the Centers for Disease Control could demand he be killed and tested for rabies, that is unlikely given the fact that he is vaccinated and Candy does not want him to be killed for doing what comes naturally. Please keep Candy and her family in your hearts, as we will be doing, in hopes for a full recovery.”
Posted Baskin to Facebook earlier, “This morning, during feeding, Candy Couser, who has been a volunteer at Big Cat Rescue for five years, and a Green Level Keeper (allowed to feed big cats) for almost three years was feeding Kimba Tiger. She saw that he was locked in a section that was away from where he was usually fed and radioed the coordinator to find out why.
“Kimba had been locked away from that section for several days as cameras were being installed there,” Baskin explained, adding in a later posting that “The doors that Candy was operating were a full cage away from this feeding lockout because she accidentally took the food to the wrong feeding lockout. This large section of cage had been shut off from the cat because work on the road near it had been under construction for a few days and we were keeping him from barking at those working nearby.”
Opened gate clipped shut
Whatever the exact reason for the lockout, “She [Candace Couser] opened a guillotine tunnel door at one end of the tunnel, and when she went to raise the second door she saw it was clipped shut. This is our universal signal NOT to open a gate,” Baskin said, “without the coordinator coming to assist, but Candy said she just wasn’t thinking when she reached in to unclip it.
“It is against our protocols for anyone to stick any part of their body into a cage with a cat in it,” Baskin emphasized. “Kimba grabbed her arm and nearly tore it off at the shoulder.”
Big Cat Rescue staff member “Jane [Pilatzke] heard the commotion and came running,” Baskin continued. “Kimba dropped his grip and Candy fell away from the side of the tunnel.”
Another staff member, Gina [Schopmeyer], who is a registered nurse, “held off the artery under Candy’s armpit to stop the bleeding and Marc [Mira],” a staff member “who had pulled Candy to safety, used his belt as a tourniquet as others called for an ambulance. Gina packed her arm in ice packs to try and save it. The ambulance arrived,” from New Port Richey, “within 15-20 minutes of the accident,” Baskin said, though the actual elapsed time was probably circa 30 minutes.
Rescued from Guatemalan circus
Kimba the tiger was rescued from the Hermanos Ponce Circus circus in Guatemala by the British-based organization Animal Defenders International, which has been pursuing legislation to ban circuses and evacuating animals formerly used in circuses, chiefly in Latin America, since 2007.
Kimba, believed to be ten years old, arrived at Big Cat Rescue on November 25, 2019, along with two other former Hermanos Ponce Circus tigers named Max and Simba.
Big Cat Rescue first heard about Kimba, Max, and Simba, according to the animal biographies posted by the sanctuary, from a Daily Mail article published on February 7, 2018, describing “how a 55-year old man had both his arms ripped off by starving tigers, who ate them as villagers threw rocks and beat the cats with sticks. The circus had been banned in Guatemala thanks to efforts made by Animal Defenders International,” Big Cat Rescue said.
Arrived on November 24, 2019
“The tigers were supposed to have been turned over to authorities, but instead, the Hermanos Ponce Circus and others went on the run. On October 29, 2018, we heard that the Ponce Circus tigers were still starving, and we asked Animal Defenders International if they were able to find them,” the Big Cat Rescue account continues.
Animal Defenders International finally impounded the last of the Ponce Circus big cats––six lions and 15 tigers––on November 11, 2018, a year and two weeks before the permits were secured to transfer Kimba, Max, and Simba to Big Cat Rescue.
The six lions and remaining 12 tigers were relocated to Animal Defenders International’s own sanctuary in Free State, South Africa, opened in 2018, located in Winburg, about 90 miles southeast of the older and better known Lionsrock sanctuary opened in 2006 by the Austrian-based organization Vier Pfoten (Four Paws).
The attack is now under investigation by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“Our keepers go through extensive training with the most important being to never stick any part of your body in a cage,” Baskin reiterated. “There are certifications for each procedure that require observing how something is done several times and then having someone who is certified observe the keeper doing the procedure several times.
“Each time there are written sign offs before graduation to the next level of animal care,” Baskin finished. “There are more than 50 classes to reach the level of proficiency required to feed our big cats.”
Nonetheless, Baskin called a night meeting of key personnel to discuss the attack, while keeping an eye on what was happening simultaneously in the House of Representatives.