After the Webinar: The Captive Wildlife Crisis. Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Tanya Smith and Tammy Thies answered a number of your questions after their presentation, The Captive Wildlife Crisis: Responding to Cases involving Wild Cats.  Here are just a few of their responses.


Audience Question: So, you talked about the bill, but what else can be done to prevent private ownership of big cats? And then we have a number of folks who’ve asked about specifics around the USDA licensing and such. 

Tammy Thies: Yep, this is Tammy. I think we definitely want the Federal bill because we already have a patchwork of laws, but city-state ordinances are extremely important, and powerful tools until we get the federal law passed. Because I know a lot of law enforcement are looking at their state laws but also then having to look at county and city ordinances. And so, we can start small, but I know all of us really would like to get the federal bill passed.


Audience Question: What are the consequences for people who continue to house cats illegally? 

Tanya Smith: Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of consequences against it. So, we’re dealing with some of these bigger rescues right now. And other people aren’t even in jail. So, it’s pretty frustrating for sanctuary workers and for organizations that put out so much money, time, and energy to make sure these animals are cared for. And there’s not a lot being done.

Kathy Blachowski: I just wanted to step in there for two different things. One of them would be as far as the question, regarding, what else can we do besides the Big Cat Public Safety Act. In the interim, we do have an advocacy committee. We have several members who have representatives on that committee, who would be more than willing to work with a person who has an interest, such as a first responder or animal control officer, who wanted to learn more about what they could do in their region, their local area. So, please do reach out to us, my e-mail. You can reach me at the rescue at big cat alliance dot org or on one of the handouts, the PDFs. You could contact me regarding that. We can look into your local and state laws and figure out what steps we can take next. And the other question would be as far as private ownership and not being allowed if it’s not allowed. A lot of times we find that lawsuits are filed. I know it was mentioned earlier in the presentation by PETA or Animal Legal Defense Fund or a couple of other larger-scale non-profits. In those court cases, it takes them larger numbers of animals that are not legally held, otherwise, it’s really reliance on local law enforcement and local animal control if it’s not allowed in your county or your state. And the only thing keeping you from confiscating those animals is you don’t know exactly what to do, what steps to take. That’s why we wanted to reach out to all of you today and be a resource for you to just give us a call. Given any of our sanctuaries a call, and they can help answer those questions and get the animal confiscated in a safe manner for both the animal and the public, and the first responders.


Audience Question: So additionally, kind of following up on what you were just talking about, is there anything else that can be done to bolster the USDA licensing or the regulations with the USDA, anything along those lines?  

Tammy Thies: Right now, the USDA enforcement is up to the USDA. So, usually what we do locally is, you know, we have, when we’ve had a seizure if the local sheriff came in and we found nuisance animal ordinances or public safety ordinances like with our regular animal law in Minnesota. And had to approach it that way, I think all of us would like to see USDA stricter standards, but they do have limited resources right now, you know, for inspections and for enforcement. And, so, we have to give kudos to the agents that are working really hard out there, writing the violations, because some of this takes time. But we need the documentation of those violations to start building cases against the offenders, to hopefully make progress.

Kathy Blachowski: And I just wanted to step in their Tammy, it’s Kathy again. In the Captive Wildlife Crisis, the page of the PDF handout that we have included with this webinar, there is a link directly to the public search tool of the USDA violations page. So, you can look up licensees. You can look up the violations that are listed. And there should be a link on that page as well to have people report violations as well, as they’re seeing.


Audience Question: In the Big Cat Public Safety Act,  why are universities excluded from that act?  

Kathy Blachowski: That’s a good question. In a way, we do have situations where a lot of our sanctuaries work with their local universities that have veterinary care, veterinary programs. And so, in a case where we would anesthetize the big cat and bring them in for specialized treatment. I’m going to let Tammy answer that a little bit, too because I have a feeling you have some more insight being at the sanctuary there.

Tammy Thies: Well, there are also a few sanctuaries that have tiger mascots, and of course we don’t support that in theory, but they have made vast improvements. I’m not taking those tigers out on the field anymore, providing good health care and providing a better habitat. And so, obviously, that was kind of a point of contention and so, I think the law, as always, is it is about concessions. And it’s about negotiations. And it’s about, as we’re trying to get the biggest offenders and the biggest public safety risks curbed and that’s kind of the approach that was taken.


Audience Question: How do you find these vets to work with your cats? Are all vets trained, or how difficult is it for you to find vets who can work specifically with your big cats? 

Tammy Thies: I’ll answer that. And then I’ll hand it over to Tanya. I know a lot of us have internship programs with pre-vet biology, and majors like that. And so, a lot of our staffing comes kind of through the ranks of internships, and then they go back to vet school and then come back, but there are a lot of dog and cat vets that also do externship at universities and colleges. And so, it’s kind of a team effort. So not only do we have onsite vets at our sanctuaries, but most of us also always have relationships with universities and other types of accredited zoos to actually provide the best care for our cats. Tanya, do you want to expand on that?

Tanya Smith: I think you handled it really well. I mean, our current vet right now is an intern and was actually on that 2012 rescue in Mountainburg with us. She came to me and wanted to go back to vet school because she’s always wanted to be able to do more and she always wanted to be a vet. So, now we’re training vets. So, veterinary assistants, veterinarians come in. We and our onsite Veterinary Hospital, we’ve set it up as an educational place, so they can either be inside the area where we’re actually doing surgery. Or there are windows around it, so they can look in, and we can live stream this information to other veterinarians across the country. I know that we and Tammy are really diligent, and if we have a problem that we just don’t understand, you got to realize that, in the sanctuary situations, we’re always finding something that nobody else has ever experienced. So, it’s great to reach out, and do the research, and find out if there are any other things. And then, our vet just reads and reads, and tries, to put out all the information that we find. So, we know that, if another sanctuary or another facility ever has this problem, then, at least, they’ll get our information. They can contact us directly, and we’ll help walk them through it.

Tammy Thies: Yeah, and it’s interesting because when you look at sanctuaries that house over a thousand tigers, compared to zoos that house about 300. Sanctuary sample size is quite large because it’s rescue medicine. Our animals are coming from areas where they weren’t treated properly. They never received vet care. They had poor diets. We see a lot more in different cases than an accredited zoo would. But that network between sanctuaries and even accredited zoos medicine is a great resource for all of us.

Kathy Blachowski: And as the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance representative over here. We do work together to do webinars, we do outreach among our member sanctuaries, and we share any information that we’ve learned from the treatment of cats in our own care. As well as we have included webinars with wildlife conservation, zoological societies, the Bronx Zoo helped us out on a webinar. And so, we do have a lot of that input coming in from other sources as well that are accredited, and whether there’s user sanctuary’s themselves, we worked together on the problems, we speak with the vets, the different institutions.

Tanya Smith: —— actually go back to work at zoos all over the world. So, by training these people, add these good qualities, sanctuaries are a step ahead of everyone else when their resume gets on that stack of 200, where they have one position available. So, we’re just really proud of our interns that have ended up in different places all over the nation, which also becomes a resource for the sanctuaries.


Audience Question: Are the local area vets when they discover or come across a situation with big cats, are they required to report private ownership of these big cats?  

Tammy Thies: So, I know in Minnesota, and in most cases is, the vets are not required to report illegal ownership, but they are required to report cruelty. So, but I think a lot of it’s education. So, I think most of these vets are seeing African Servals with fractured legs and things for metabolic bone disease. And they’re plating them without the knowledge of knowing that the metabolic bone disease is most likely due to an improper diet from the owner. So, I think we do a lot of education on to our local vets and humane societies in our area too, to kind of let them know what they need to report and not report. So, it might be different state by state. But I think in most cases, it’s about the abuse of the animal or mistreatment of the animal versus that it’s legally held.


Audience Question: What how many big cat sanctuaries are there in the United States who can receive these seized or surrendered big cats? Is there a total figure that you know of? 

Kathy Blachowski: So, for the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, we have the 16 member sanctuaries that we have shown on the map, and we have a handout that has links on each of those sanctuaries on the map. Another good resource would be the Global Federation of Animals Sanctuaries, GFAS, if you go on their website, you can search by species. So, we’re talking about big cats today, but if you find, you know, a wolf that needs to be placed or confiscated or any other type of species that may be one of our members doesn’t take in, GFAS is a very good resource for that. And they have a very user-friendly interface in order to be able to search by location and by species that you’re trying to re-home. GFAS is also great because it’s an accrediting body. So, these sanctuaries that are part of that have to live up to a certain level of care for the animals, a certain level of safety for the public, and anyone who’s working there as well. There are plenty of places in the United States that call themselves sanctuaries. They actually have sanctuary refuge rescue in their names, but there’s no legal requirement in order to use those terms in the name of a facility. So, it really is a lot about research. Doing all your legwork on who the organizations are.


Audience Question: Do any of you work with other national organizations, like ASPCA or HSUS, to help support and network with your organizations? 

Tammy Thies: All of them are also institutional members of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance.

Kathy Blachowski: We have international partner organizations. So, we have one in Spain ———, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is a partner member Bears Etc. which is starting up sanctuary down in Texas. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries we work with them regularly, the Humane Society of the United States, IFAW which is the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Tigers in America, and World Animal Protection. So, those are partner members, they don’t have sanctuaries themselves that we work with. We work through their network, through their partner organizations.


Audience Question: So, if I’m an agency here in Washington state or whatever state that our audience members are at…. What do we do when we get that call from somebody in the community that says, “Hey, I think somebody’s got big cats and they’re housing them next door?” What’s the protocol? Who do we call? What’s our next step if we’ve never had this happen? 

Tammy Thies: Well, I think there are multiple steps. If you’re law enforcement, reaching out to the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, we have a lot of information and a lot of facilities, so most of them, we’ve heard. Kathy mentioned reaching out to the USDA with the contact we give you to see what their inspection reports are like. So, just because somebody houses big cats, you need more information. Do you need to know if they’re licensed, you need to know if they’re in violation of their license at all, you need to know your state and county laws to see if the possession is legal or not. So that’s stuff that can seem overwhelming, but we can walk somebody through, but we need a little bit more information of what are they seeing. Is it a roadside zoo exhibit that they’re concerned about? Is it somebody in private farm with several big cats that nobody’s seen? We can help walk through that.


Audience Question: And can we also call you if we’re needing help moving big cats off of a property, that we’re doing a seizure or a search and seizure? Should we call you directly? Or should we go through Big Cat Sanctuary? What’s the best process to do that?  

Tammy Thies: Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance is the best process because then, they can determine what state you’re in, the closest sanctuary, what responses are required based on the number of animals. They can do all that legwork for you and then reach out to the individual sanctuary that can best handle it. But don’t ever hesitate to call a sanctuary directly if you have a relationship if there’s one in your backyard.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of The Captive Wildlife Crisis: Responding to Cases involving Wild Cats.  


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