TOPEKA — The slaying of a Labette County High School student by a 700-pound tiger at an exotic animal facility served as impetus for Kansas laws limiting ownership of big cats and prohibiting contact between these animals and the public.
Haley Hilderbrand, 17, was killed in August 2005 while posing for senior pictures at Lost Creek Animal Sanctuary near Mound Valley.
The Siberian tiger that bit her was on a leash at a facility licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
State restrictions enacted a year later are being challenged by state legislators and owners of a Kansas wildlife business.
“The legislation, Senate Bill 97, would reverse all the work we have done to protect our mothers, fathers and children in Kansas from this kind of senseless tragedy,” said Ronda and Michael Good, the mother and stepfather of Hilderbrand.
“This issue is very personal to us. You cannot possibly imagine the pain of losing a child until you have experienced it.”
On Tuesday, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee plans to consider a bill restoring opportunities for the public to hold lions, tigers, mountain lions, leopards, cheetahs and other big cats weighing less than 10 pounds.
The public also would be able to hug or pet exotic cats weighing 10 pounds to 40 pounds.
These animals could be transported in the state to private, public, commercial and retail establishments. In addition, it would repeal a ban on ownership of clouded leopards as pets.
The bill was passed in 2015 by the Senate on a bipartisan 23-17 vote and has been championed by the Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard, where an official said reform would “allow us to use those cubs to create an awesome experience for the public.”
The legislation was endorsed Jack Hanna, a television show host who had worked with Tanganyika animals.
Opposition to the legislation emerged from families of people killed by big cats, the Sedgwick County Zoo, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Atchison County sheriff, Kansas Animal Control Association and the Lawrence Humane Society, as well as animal rights and rescue organizations.
Ryan Gulker, deputy director of the Sedgwick County Zoo, said the bill would revealingly mandate people holding or petting the big cats to sign a statement affirming the animals were “inherently dangerous and may result in scratches, bites or other injuries.”
“We believe this type of contact is inherently dangerous for the public and the animals,” Gulker said. In testimony submitted in advance of the hearing, Sterling resident Clay Thomas said the bill opened the door for more innocent people to get hurt.
He was with his wife and a Boy Scout troop at a small private zoo in Kansas in 1999. While standing for photos, a tiger grabbed his wife by the right hand and pulled her into a cage. Her arm was severed at the elbow.
“Those few seconds were the beginning of an almost seven-year journey that eventually killed my wife,” Thomas said. “I cannot begin to tell you how those few seconds affected my then 12-year-old son who was standing next to his mother during the attack.”
Thomas objected to language in Senate Bill 97 that would remove state regulations on ownership of clouded leopards.
“With this new law,” he said, “your neighbors will be able to keep these now unregulated animals in their backyards.”