Saving Wild Animals in Need. . . and Sometimes in Secret
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FROM PAWS Performing Animal Welfare Society
July 2021

A sanctuary may be asked to keep a matter confidential until a case is decided. In fact, PAWS currently is caring for big cats who were the subject of a major operation, with multiple sanctuaries lending assistance. For now, the specifics of their situation will remain confidential until the legal process is completed.

Bobcat Owen
Bobcat Owen

In July 2020, we introduced bobcat Owen for the first time in our newsletter – even though we had been caring for him for five years. As we explained at the time, Owen had been in a “witness protection program” of sorts after confiscation by authorities. PAWS agreed to provide emergency placement for Owen, who was kept as a “pet” in poor conditions in a state that forbids the private possession of wild animals. It wasn’t until last year that we could officially announce that PAWS is Owen’s forever home.

This is not the first time that PAWS has taken in a captive wild animal who was the subject of legal action. This is an important role that sanctuaries sometimes fill, enabling law enforcement agencies to take steps that are necessary to protect captive wildlife. Since our founding in 1984, PAWS has assisted in several cases. In fact, our first rescue, a lioness named Elsa, was the subject of a legal case. We have also worked to pass legislation to protect captive wild animals. PAWS' first bill became law in 1985, introducing humane standards for the care and handling of wildlife, including making it illegal to keep a wild animal as a pet in California.

Tiger Gracie
Tiger Gracie was confiscated by authorities in 2000 and was the subject of a legal action. She lived at PAWS' Galt sanctuary for 15 years before passing away in 2015 at the age of 21.

Placement of an animal in legal cases is considered to be temporary, until the case is resolved. There is the real possibility that after caring for an animal we may have to return them. (So far, that has not happened.) No matter the outcome of a case, the sanctuary bears the costs of transporting and providing shelter, food, and veterinary care for the animal. A sanctuary may be asked to keep the matter confidential until the case is decided. In fact, PAWS currently is caring for big cats who were the subject of a major operation, with multiple sanctuaries lending assistance. For now, the specifics of their situation will remain confidential until the legal process is completed.

So how does an animal become the subject of a law enforcement action and confiscation? An animal may be confiscated based on a particular law, such as a prohibition on the private possession of wild animals or illegal import of an animal into a state. Other cases may involve abuse, deprivation, unrelieved suffering, or potential for imminent great harm or death. Legal actions can be initiated by local police and sheriff’s departments, state fish and wildlife agencies, or federal agencies – and in some cases a combination of agencies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and can initiate action to confiscate an animal in distress – although this rarely happens, even when an exhibitor repeatedly violates the very minimal standards of care required under the Act. Unfortunately, AWA regulations are not enough to truly protect animals, often allowing them to languish and even die in poor conditions. When the USDA does take action for suffering animals, the agency should be recognized for doing its job and strongly urged to continue similar actions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) can take action on behalf of certain species, such as captive tigers and lions, protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is illegal to harm, harass, wound, or kill protected animals. The FWS can initiate steps in situations that present a serious danger to an animal including poor health, lack of veterinary care, improper diets that cause disease, and unacceptable captive conditions. More often, it is legal cases brought by the PETA Foundation under the ESA that have succeeded in removing protected animals from dangerous captive conditions and sending them to accredited sanctuaries.

Unfortunately, not all confiscations result in captive wild animals being sent to a place that is good for them, despite the fact that qualified sanctuaries are available to assist. State agencies may send animals to the first licensed facility they can find or one that calls itself a sanctuary but does not truly operate as one. (A genuine sanctuary does not buy, sell, breed, trade, or exploit animals for profit, including taking them off-site for so-called “educational” presentations or allowing public contact with their animals.) A confiscation may not happen at all because an agency is unaware of a facility that can hold the animal. To help remedy these problems, the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, of which PAWS is a founding member, is reaching out to inform legal and law enforcement entities that the group's member sanctuaries are available to help with captive wild cat placements.

PAWS is proud to assist law enforcement agencies that step up to take action for captive wild animals in need and protect them from further harm. You may not hear about these animals for a while, like Owen, but you can be sure that we provide them with the best of care.

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