Federal Regulation of Wild Felines

There are seven species of feline generally considered big cats, tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, cheetah and cougar.

Cougar and lion are non-endangered species. Cougar are native to the US, and often regulated by a state’s G & F or state’s Dept of Natural Resources. Lions are an exotic species and wildlife agencies may not regulate exotics.

The US Fish and Wildlife classify the five other felines as Endangered. Federal permits regulate interstate commercial activity of these species.  The Jaguar is a native species and has additional permit restrictions.  The generic tiger is an endangered species and protected by the ESA, but is exempt from the captive bred wildlife registration requirement for interstate commerce for breeding purposes. The white bengal tiger is considered by the US F & W Service to be a generic tiger. Tigers not part of a studbook registry or DNA tested are generally considered generic tigers by US F & W Service.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the Generic Tiger Exemption and has proposed it be rescinded. If the Generic Tiger Ruling is rescinded, then interstate commerce of generic tigers will be prohibited without a CBW registration or interstate commerce permit.


The Endangered Species Act – This Congressional act gives protection to species designated as threatened and endangered. The US Fish and Wildlife Service determine what species to list. Those species may not be sold in interstate commerce without specific USDI permission.  Interstate commerce is permitted for only two reasons – the use of the species for educational purposes, or the use of the animal for captive breeding purposes.  It is important to note that interstate commerce of a threatened or endangered species for personal collection, or pet purposes, is never legal.

The USF&W Service approves permits if there is factual evidence that the breeding or educational use of the animal can be demonstrated to directly benefit the species in the wild. This is generally translated into a money-flow equation for exotic species. Financial support of habitat protection to enhance the species in the wild must be a direct result of the permitted activity.

Interstate Commerce Permit – If an exhibitor applies for an Interstate Commerce permit to purchase a specific snow leopard cub to be used as an educational ambassador, the applicant must already demonstrate a history of financial support of wildlife habitat protection and commit to continue ongoing financial support of F & W approved enhancement projects.

Captive Bred Wildlife Registration – Zoos and conservation breeding facilities registered with the F & W Service as a Captive Bred Wildlife facility have also satisfied the direct link to enhancement of the species in the wild to obtain their registration. Strong financial commitment to ensure that species are being directly benefited in nature through funding of habitat protection is required to obtain and maintain a CBW registration. Captive breeding for captive purposes is not enough; the enhancement must be tied to the species in the wild. Once a facility is registered, it may conduct interstate commerce with other registered facilities freely and submit an annual report to the F & W Service.

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act – After the tragic accident of Roy Horn and the outrageous case of a New York Harlem apartment dweller who kept an adult tiger at his residence, Congress felt enough pressure to amend the Lacey Act with the passage of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act. Final regulations became effective September 2007. Interstate transport, whether commercial or non-commercial (donation) of large cats is now restricted to USDA licensed persons, and federally defined wildlife sanctuaries that do not breed, or allow any public contact of the animals.

United States Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) – Many states restrict possession of the large cat species to persons and facilities possessing a USDA license and many of these states further restrict possession to only holders of the Class C Exhibitor’s license. This Class C license is issued for exhibiting of animals for commercial purposes. In the case of wildlife, all exhibiting requires this license. A basic overview of the USDA licensing process is covered in Understanding USDA Licensing.

In Conclusion – Large cats in captivity are an extremely large responsibility. Most Americans do not possess husbandry knowledge and experience, and are not in a position to provide what is required by responsible captive husbandry of these felines. Enclosures need to be constructed of sufficient size and strength to address the emotional and physical needs of the feline. Some states have specific caging requirements as part of their permitting process, and all keepers must be familiar with their individual state’s regulations. Surrounding all large cat enclosures must be an 8-foot tall perimeter fence. Additionally, safety features such as double-door entry systems and a means of separating the feline from the keeper when inside the enclosure should be incorporated into the enclosure design.

Keepers must have on hand a means of safely confining the felines while transporting to a veterinary hospital. Most veterinary offices do not have operating rooms or equipment to handle a feline as large as a lion or tiger, so one needs to consider how and where they will find medical assistance.
Every keeper of a large cat needs to think about “what if’s?” What if my cat injures or bites someone? What if my cat escapes? What if I can’t keep my cat anymore?  What if I become unable to care for my cat? Plans need to be made that address equipment to stop an attack, such as pepper spray, or a CO 2 fire extinguisher, recapture equipment such as a dart rifle and tranquilizer drugs, and even a firearm is something that should be on hand.

However, these threatened and endangered species do need to be maintained in captivity for breeding, educational, exhibit, and ambassador purposes.   For these reasons, more then ever there needs to be greater education of the public, the press, the legislators and the keepers about these cats.