with Paulina Firozi

With the nation on coronavirus lockdown, America was captivated by Joe Maldonado-Passage — a.k.a. Joe Exotic — the gun-toting, polyamorous, country-singing star of the Netflix smash hit “Tiger King" who once ran an Oklahoma zoo that housed up to 200 tigers. He made his money by offering cubs to pet and illegally selling big cats. 

At least some of the 64 million viewers of the documentary series were also inspired to call for change from Congress: Lawmakers have been hearing from constituents eager to pass a long-stalled bill that would put roadside animal parks out of business. 

“I wasn't being contacted by anybody about this bill” before the Netflix show, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said in an interview earlier this month.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act, proposed but never passed during the last five congressional terms, could get another chance. 

The bill would heavily restrict private ownership of tigers and other large and dangerous felines.  

And it would largely limit public contact with lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and cougars to wildlife sanctuaries, state universities and major zoos — cutting out private collectors like Joe Exotic.

The measure, the bill’s proponents say, would help put an end to the practice of cub petting, which animal advocates warn encourages reckless breeding and is inherently harmful to the young animals taken from their mothers. 

“The one thing that should be clear to anyone who watches that show is that this cub-putting industry is not completely benign,” said Huffman, who presided over the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bill that was featured in one episode.

Since dropping on Netflix last month and becoming its number one show, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), lead Senate sponsor of the legislation, said he has “received a lot of feedback, both pro and con, on the series” from constituents. 

Huffman’s office said it received 181 emails and calls from constituents about the legislation in the first half of April only — about eight times more than it received during the entire previous month. 

But the bill's backers wish the documentary focused less on Joe Exotic himself and more on the plight of the animals.

Huffman said he is concerned that the spotlight on the crazy and dangerous exploits of the self-described tiger king may cause viewers to miss the bigger point.

“Like most of America, I was appalled and entertained,” Huffman said. “I just don't want people to color the serious policy issue behind H.R. 1380 with all of the personalities and drama of that show.” 

Still, Huffman said he watched the series and conceded that the show “has given us an interesting distraction in a difficult moment.”

But Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), the bill's lead sponsor, said earlier this month he has not watched the show. He doesn't have the stomach for it, he said, as even the commercials advocating against animal cruelty are hard for him to watch. “When they show those commercials at night for ASPCA or anti-cruelty and so forth, I turn the channel.” 

But Quigley says he has been “briefed extensively” on the show and the problem, and shares some of Huffman's concerns about its focus on the bizarre behavior of those who run makeshift menageries, rather than on how the animals in them are treated.

“It doesn't tell the story like ‘Blackfish,’ ” he said, referring to the widely-hailed documentary on SeaWorld that spurred the chain of marine parks to begin phasing out live performances with orcas.

But Quigley welcomes the extra publicity, if it helps his bill become law. “It's not how I would have done it, but I'll take it. It's a strange thing what gets legislation over the finish line.”

There was a fierce battle over the bill in Washington long before “Tiger King.”

Joe Exotic, whose saga ended with a 22-year sentence for killing five tigers and plotting to have a rival murdered, is in no position to lobby lawmakers. 

But other “Tiger King” characters are. 

That rival, Carole Baskin, a prominent animal rights activist, has hired Jason Osborne, a partner at the Washington lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions, as a lobbyist to help convince GOP members to support the bill. Her husband, Howard Baskin, said by email they have been to Washington about 10 times for lobbying trips.

Osborne, a former campaign adviser for President Trump who once worked for the National Rifle Association, admitted he is an odd advocate for an animal rights bill.

But he points out the Big Cat Public Safety Act is also about public safety. When animals are let loose from private collections — like 50 tigers, lions and other animals famously did in 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio — police officers put their lives on the line to respond. Two police associations, the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs' Association, back the bill.

“That's what really appealed to me,” he said.

With 229 endorsements, including 22 from Republicans, the measure is supported by a majority of House members. And after passing committee in September, it is further long than it has ever gotten this Congress.

But the bill still has detractors who have at least one advantage in lobbying: baby cats.

Bhagavan “Doc” Antle — another eccentric zoo owner based in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and profiled in “Tiger King” — brought some of his own tiger cubs to a Natural Resources Committee meeting in 2013 to woo lawmakers.

“There were lines of staff and members down the hall and around the corner to see our animals,” said Frank Vitello, who lobbies against the bill for Antle and who helped coordinate the visit. What activists really want, he argued, is an end to all animal captivity. 

Giving the Fish and Wildlife Service new authority to regulate the animals, as the proposal would do, just duplicates the permitting work already done by the Department of Agriculture, Vitello added. 

But Howard Baskin called that argument “utter nonsense.” “Nothing changes in USDA's role to inspect.”

Antle has allies among many of the panel's Republicans, including top GOP member Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who said the proposal pits small, family-owned animal parks against big zoos, which would be able to keep their cats.

“To those who’ve become enamored by this documentary and are now advocates of this legislation,” Bishop said, “I would challenge you to do a little research.”

A big question: Does the bill have a chance of passing during a pandemic?

Despite the GOP opposition, Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, will include the big cat proposal in a larger wildlife package to be introduced later this year, his office said.

On the Senate side, the bill has a tougher road, with only 17 sponsors, including Republicans Richard Burr (N.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Martha McSally (Ariz.).

Blumenthal is glad the documentary “has certainly raised awareness about the plight of these beautiful animals.” But passing any non-coronavirus-related legislation, he added, will have to take a back seat to responding to the crisis that has already killed more than 49,000 Americans.

“If we're able to do it, it would be great,” he said. “But the pandemic has to be our first and only priority, for as long as it takes to get through it.” 

Coronavirus fallout

Trump and Vice President Pence are promoting new lab results suggesting that heat and sunlight will slow covid-19.

During a White House briefing, the president and vice president showcased new laboratory evidence fueling hope the virus will ebb during the summer.

While still preliminary and not yet peer-reviewed, the new U.S. Army research largely matches “other laboratory studies and the suspicions of some researchers by showing that the novel coronavirus, like many other viruses, does not survive as long when exposed to high amounts of ultraviolet light and warm and humid conditions,” Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report.

Trump saw it as vindication: In the past, the president had suggested the virus would wane with warm weather. “I just threw it out as a suggestion, but it seems like that’s the case, because when it’s on a surface, that would last for a long time. When that surface is outside, it goes very quickly. It dies very quickly with the sun,” Trump said.

But weather won't be a panacea: Warm states, such as Georgia and Florida, still have significant outbreaks. And “if the virus were to wane during the summer, a dreaded second wave would still be likely in the fall, as has happened with past pandemic flu outbreaks,” Freedman and Samenow write.

Trump also, confusingly, suggested bringing the light inside the body to fight infections.

“If you could and maybe you can, maybe you can’t,” he said at one point. “Again, I say maybe you can. Maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor. I’m like a person that has a good you know what,” Trump said, pointing to his head.

Steven Mnuchin is considering creating a special lending program for struggling oil companies.

Trump’s treasury secretary told Bloomberg News he is weighing starting an “alternative structures with banks” for oil companies not creditworthy enough to get money from the Federal Reserve's coronavirus lending program.

  • To quote: “One of the components we’re looking at is providing a lending facility for the industry,” Mnuchin said. “We’re looking at a lot of different options, and we have not made any conclusions.”
  • No “bailout”: While Mnuchin was short on details, his comments were swiftly condemned by green groups who want none of the coronavirus relief to go to fossil fuel companies contributing to climate change. “This is yet another dangerous step towards a full-fledged oil industry bailout,” John Noël of Greenpeace USA said.
  • Meanwhile, oil prices jump by 20 percent Thursday: “While prices have clawed back ground over the past two sessions, oil now trades at a fraction of where it started the year and is well below levels that make it profitable for companies to produce,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

In other news

The Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s reading of a key part of the Clean Water Act.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the high court gave a partial win to environmentalists by ruling that polluters could not avoid rules regulating pollutants in rivers, lakes and seas by pumping them first into groundwater, Robert Barnes reports

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency said such discharges into groundwater fell largely outside the act. But the court's four liberal jurists, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, ruled that Congress did not intend to create “such a large and obvious loophole” in the law. 

At issue specifically was a wastewater treatment plant in Hawaii. But the ruling in the closely watched case — County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund — may have broader implications for mining companies, home builders and farms nationwide.

Morgan Stanley won't lend to Arctic drilling projects anymore.

The multinational bank is the latest on Wall Street to forgo financing new oil and gas projects above the Arctic Circle. That includes drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Trump and congressional Republicans opened to oil and gas development in 2017.

Also as part of its new energy policy, the bank said it will not finance new or existing coal-fired power generation.

The move follows in the footsteps of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and — earlier this week — Citigroup. The Sierra Club, among the green groups leaning on Wall Street to get out of the fossil-fuel business, offered guarded praise for the move. 

“Investing in drilling in the Arctic Refuge would be a disaster for Indigenous rights, wildlife, and the climate," the group’s Ben Cushing said.