Nevada is one of the few remaining states without prohibitions against the importation, possession or sale of exotic animals. Senate Bill 344, sponsored by Senator James Ohrenschall, would institute certain prohibitions if passed.
“The idea behind SB344 is to protect the species listed in terms of keeping them as private pets and also when they are in the hands of US Department of Agriculture [USDA] exhibitors,” said Jeff Dixon, Nevada state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “Nevada is a pretty permissive state. It’s one of the only states with no laws regulating the keeping of these animals as pets, so we’ve sort of become a place where you can still do that.”
According to Born Free USA, a leading wildlife charity, Nevada is one of five states that do not require a license in order to obtain and keep exotic animals. The other states include Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
SB344 specifically targets “dangerous wild animals” that are held in captivity, namely elephants, primates, hyenas and several big cat and bear species, among others.
According to REXANO, a Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership group that submitted testimony in opposition to the bill, 13 of Nevada’s 17 counties already have local ordinances regulating exotic animals. REXANO’s testimony goes on to list the exotic animal inventory in Nevada, which includes 47 tigers and 37 African lions among its total of roughly 105 big cats statewide as of 2019.
A driving purpose behind this bill, however, is limiting opportunities for “direct contact” between these animals and the public. Dixon likens it to preventing practices that occurred on the popular Netflix show “Tiger King.”
“One of the worst things [exotic animals] can be subject to, that this bill addresses, is public contact,” Dixon said. “If you saw ‘Tiger King,’ there’s a scheme where you breed animals, usually tigers, and during a narrow window of their life they’ll be subject to photo opportunities and petting sessions. Then they get too old so they will breed more tigers and this leads to a lot of animals needing sanctuary and going into the private pet market or ending up dead.”
Keith Evans, President of the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, refuted the “Tiger King” comparison in his testimony opposing the bill. The Lion Habitat Ranch is one of three Zoological Association of America (ZAA-accredited) facilities in Nevada, which under the current status of the bill would not be exempt from the legislation.
SB344 offers an exemption status for accredited facilities under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA), as well as exhibitors with a “Class C” license from the USDA.
It’s under this discrepancy that James Seyjagat, executive director of the ZAA, opposes the bill. Seyjagat’s testimony requests that ZAA-accredited facilities be included to have exemption status and states that his organization is willing to rescind its opposition if that request, among others, is fulfilled.
In order to acquire exemption status under a Class C exhibitors license from the USDA, certain criteria need to be met.
“To get a Class C license [owners] don’t have to give up their animals, but they do have to fulfill requirements such as having emergency plan, insurance and cannot have any USDA violations or convictions of animal cruelty,” Dixon said. “If they meet those [requirements], even if they don’t get a USDA license, they may keep the animals they have, but they may not acquire new ones unless they get a USDA license. The idea here is just to raise that standard of protection for these animals and for the public.”
Changes have already been proposed for the bill under Amendment No. 271. They include allowing 90 days for a revoked or suspended Class C licensee to resolve the violating issue and retain their license, as well as allowing exemptions for “qualified productions” in media and film.
“There is an amendment coming where we have made exemptions for Nevada gaming resorts and for the film industry,” Dixon said. “So a lot of people are still permitted to keep these animals, so long as they do so with a higher level of responsibility.”
Passage of SB344 would be seen as a precursor ahead of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a similar federal legislation passed from the US House of Representatives in December 2020 and currently being considered in the US Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the All. Support his work.