H.R. 263: Big Cat Public Safety Act was passed Congress on December 6, 2022 — next stop — the President.

If enacted, the amendments to the Lacey Act would revise restrictions on the possession and exhibition of big cats, including to restrict direct contact between the public and big cats.

Specifically, USDA licensed exhibitors (“Exhibitors”) are exempt from the provisions which make it “unlawful for any person to-(A) import, expert, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce, or in a manner substantially affecting interstate or foreign commerce; or (B) breed or possess; any prohibited wildlife species.”  To qualify for those exemptions, Exhibitors must “hold such license or registration in good standing” and comply with other provisions, described below.  It is unclear what “hold[ing] such license . . . in good standing means.”  Licenses are issued and remain viable unless terminated, withdrawn, or suspended.  If “good standing” means something else, it will have to be proposed during rule-making which will give stakeholders an opportunity to comment.

The most impactful provisions would require Exhibitors to limit volunteers or others working at the facility and the public from being closer than 15 feet from certain big cats during public exhibition “unless there is a permanent barrier sufficient to prevent public contact.”

This would not apply to “a trained professional employee or contractor of the entity or facility (or an accompanying employee receiving professional training); [or] a licensed veterinarian (or a veterinary student accompanying such a veterinarian).” 

It would also not apply to an individual that is “directly supporting conservation programs of the entity or facility, the contact is not in the course of commercial activity (which may be evidenced by advertisement or promotion of such activity or other relevant evidence), and the contact is incidental to humane husbandry conducted pursuant to a species-specific, publicly available, peer-edited population management and care plan that has been provided to the Secretary with justifications that the plan—'(aa) reflects established conservation science principles; ‘(bb) incorporates genetic and demographic analysis of a multi-institution population of animals covered by the plan; and ‘(cc) promotes animal welfare by ensuring that the frequency of breeding is appropriate for the species.”

Theoretically, a volunteer could participate in supporting conservation programs if the facility complied with the requirements to submit the plan to the Secretary (note, that there does not seem to be a requirement for approval of each plan), but the prohibition of the use of such programs in the course of commercial activity, evidenced, at least in part by “advertisement or promotion of such activity” is problematic.  Such programs are often, if not routinely, captured in photographs or videos used to promote the conservation goals of the facility.  This is turn, is used for fund raising, often critical for the fiscal well-being of these facilities.  Hence, this prohibition, even without considering the impact on “volunteers” but in this provision, any employee not specifically exempted, to assist with these critical conservation programs.

For most Exhibitors who rely on volunteers, a careful review of the proposed and then adopted regulations expected to be promulgated if these amendments are adopted, will be required, including all relevant labor laws that govern how employees, whether paid or not, are characterized and what liability would attach to the Exhibitor based on the employee status.