Driving through Oklahoma recently and watching Tiger King of late, Ernest “Big Daddy” Bux was intrigued that they are apparently 5,000 to 15,000 tigers in the United States and only 3,500 in the “wild.” Hearing that an 8-12 week old cub offered for “cub petting” in a roadside petting “zoo” could pay back over $1 million, Big Daddy decided that his Big Bux Ranch was big enough to add a roadside business and raise pet tigers. Does the State of Texas permit Big Daddy to keep pet tigers? Does Big Daddy have any liability for keeping them?
Yes, as my co-Tilting the Scales author Drew York pointed out in 2015, Texas prohibits private individuals from owning or having custody of a nondomestic animal – a “dangerous wild animal” – such as a lion, tiger or bear – unless the person has a certificate of registration from either the city or county animal control department, or from the county sheriff if the county does not have an animal control department as directed by the county commissioners court. The registration certificate must be renewed annually at a cost of up to $50 for each dangerous wild animal and up to $500 for each person registering a wild animal. Failing to obtain a certificate of registration risks a civil penalty of at least $200 and not more than $2000, and is subject to Class C misdemeanor charge. The owner must also have at least $100,000 liability insurance coverage for the animal. Additionally, the owner must immediately notify the animal control department or the sheriff if the animal escapes or attacks a human.
The ability to own exotic pets varies across the country. At least 14 states ban private individual citizens from owning exotic animals as pets. Approximately 14 more states have some sort of licensing scheme requiring the owner to register the animal. Other states have regulations covering the ownership of exotic animals, but do not require registration or may not have enforcement provisions. This is a great summary of each state’s laws concerning exotic animals.
And, then there’s the risk of personal injury claims from tiger attacks. Granted, offering “cub petting” with 8-12 week old cubs is appealing. Yet, having cubs, means Big Daddy likely also has some mating adults – which can be dangerous. Wild animals can transmit serious diseases to humans as well as commit serious bodily harm. Pet owners are still responsible for the actions of their animals. Under Texas law, a landowner is liable for any injuries suffered by an invitee upon their land if the landowner failed to exercise ordinary care to maintain his property. Therefore, those injured by an exotic animal are entitled to compensation for their injuries that may include hospital bills and compensation for missed work time. As to employees that Big Daddy might employ in his roadside zoo, they would probably be covered by workers compensation insurance.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor
Big Daddy should carefully compare the risk of roadside “cub petting” against the perceived reward. Bills currently before Congress could change overnight the perceived lucrative nature of Big Daddy’s proposed venture. Big Daddy will undoubtedly expect that all customers must sign a broad release of liability releasing him and his employees, but will it be enforceable? The answer may well be influenced by the conduct of the customer and Big Daddy’s employees. It’s a very good idea, but not necessarily bullet-proof. Moreover, getting insurance to cover the risk of liability that one of these “apex predators” injure one of Big Daddy’s invitees may be challenging, if not significantly limited in scope of coverage and amount of damages.