17-year-old’s death changes lawmakers’ view of exotic cats in private hands
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2006:
TOPEKA–Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius on April 17 signed
into law a bill requiring Kansans who keep big cats, bears, and
non-native venomous snakes to hold a U.S. Department of Agriculture
exhibitors’ license plus $250,000 worth of liability insurance.
To take effect on October 1, 2006, the bill sailed through
the Kansas senate unanimously, and cleared the state house 101-24.
Just eight months earlier the new Kansas law might never have
escaped a legislative subcommittee. Press coverage of a much weaker
regulatory effort was not sympathetic.
“Exotic cats keep Kansas couple purring, but regulations
could take pets away,” headlined the Kansas City Star on August 6,
2005, above a feature by Leann Sulzen of Associated Press about hog
farmers Rod and Rita Rose, of Salina, Kansas.
Since 1991, Sulzen wrote, “the Roses have owned eight large
cats, usually more than one at a time. When the cats grow old and
die, the Roses get another big cat. They got Cody and Callie from
Ray O. Smith, who used to live in rural Ottawa County. He raised
African lions and Siberian tigers.”
That, in a paragraph, is often the whole story of big cats
in private hands. Animals whose lifespan in zoos and accredited
sanctuaries often exceeds 15 years rarely last a fraction as long in
the care of private individuals. But efforts to change the paradigm
have rarely succeeded in conservative rural states.
“The Roses’ right to keep such pets could change,” wrote
Sulzen. “The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is
re-evaluating Kansas laws for possessing exotic animals. Kansas
requires a permit to own a bear, wolf or mountain lion. There are
no permit requirements for owning [other] large cats.”
“The federal Captive Wildlife Safety Act, passed in 2003,
restricts the interstate sale or transportation of certain exotic
animals,” Sulzen noted. “Wildlife & Parks Commission chair John
Dykes said the regulations Wildlife & Parks is looking into would be
more in sync with federal law.”
Federal regulation of animal industries has often proved especially
unpopular in Kansas, a longtime “puppy mill state.”
On August 18, 2005, however, 17-year-old Haley Hilderbrand
visited the Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary in Mound Valley, Kansas, to
pose with a seven-year-old Siberian tiger for her senior photograph.
Operated by Doug Billingsley and family since 1994, the 80-acre
facility kept lions, leopards, tigers, and bears.
The tiger, held on a chain by a handler, turned suddenly and
The Hilderband family began pushing for strengthened Wildlife
& Parks regulation, and then, when the commission moved slowly,
pushed for a stronger law on which to base the regulation.
Supporting testimony came from Ken Lockwood, a former
employee of the Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard. Lockwood in
2001 survived a 30-minute attack by a Himalayan snow leopard, that
according to Brent D. Wistrom of the Wichita Eagle “transformed him
from a person enthralled with big cats to one who thinks cat
ownership should be regulated.”
International Fund for Animal Welfare representative
Josephine Martell reminded lawmakers that, “In 1999, at the Safari
Zoo-logical Park,” in Caney, Kansas, “a woman was severely mauled
by an adult tiger. Also in 1999, in Wichita, a five-year-old child
was severely mauled by a five-month-old tiger and received 20
stitches in the throat to close a near fatal wound. In 2001, in
Oskalooska, a police officer shot a privately owned escaped tiger as
the tiger crouched to attack him.”
In all, Martell said, captive big cats have mauled 75
people and killed 12 in the U.S. since 1990, while 26 states still
have little or no regulation of keeping exotic and dangerous wildlife.
Kentucky banned private possession of big cats in 2005.
Minnesota banned private possession of big cats, bears, and
nonhuman primates in 2004, but allowed people who already had them
to keep them. Among those people was Cynthia Lee Gamble, 52, a
former film editor for Jacques Cousteau and writer/producer of
wildlife documentaries for the Discovery Channel and BBC. From 1992
to 2004 she ran a facility called the Center for Endangered Cats near
Sandstone, Minnesota. Gamble reportedly kept two tigers and a
caracal. Friend Al Wolter and her son Garrett, 14, found her
remains on April 7 in a cage with a 500-pound Bengal tiger.
“In 1996, a black leopard from Gamble’s center scratched and
bit a student after a presentation at Oak Grove Junior High School in
Bloomington,” recalled Kevin Giles and Bob Von Sternberg of the
Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Authorities said the child was not
supposed to be backstage, where the attack occurred.”
Wildcat Sanctuary founder Tammy Quist, whose facility is
about five miles away, told Giles and Von Sternberg that since the
Minnesota law took effect, she has removed 33 tigers from Minnesota
Draft federal regs
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on January 31, 2006 at last
published for public comment the long-awaited Captive Wildlife Safety
Act enforcement regulations. The initial 30-day comment period ran
to March 2.
The act is more familiarly known to animal advocates as the
“Shambala Act” after the Shambala Preserve operated by actress Tippi
Hedren in Acton, California. Congress-ional Representative Howard
McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) co-authored and introduced the act at
The act bans interstate or Internet trade or transfer of live
lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, pumas, or any
hybrid combination of these species, except among USDA-licensed
exhibitors, such as zoos and circuses, universities, some
veterinarians, and accredited wildlife sanctuaries. The act also
includes provisions pertaining to public safety and record-keeping.
USDA authority does not extend to commerce in big cats within
states. Thus breeders and dealers of big cats may continue to
produce animals for sale to in-state clients, subject to state
“Before the passage of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, it was as
simple and cheap to buy a tiger cub on the Internet as it was to buy
a black lab pup,” said International Fund for Animal Welfare
spokesperson Kerry Brannon, a claim that ANIMAL PEOPLE made and
demonstrated on camera in 1998 for KIRO television news of Seattle.
“These draft regulations are a good first step,” said
Martell. “It is essential,” she added, “that the final rules add
strict enforcement protocols and penalties not included in the
draft.” Violators of the ban on interstate traffic in big cats may
be sentenced to serve up to five years in prison, and may be fined up
to $250,000 for an individual, or $500,000 for an institution or
business. However, the regulations do not provide comparable
penalties for other possible infringements and infractions.