Big Cat Advocate

A white tiger cub lays on a medical table.

Carney Anne Nasser ’99 uses the law to curb exotic animal trafficking.

If childhood dreams are any indication of a life’s calling, consider Carney Anne Nasser ’99: “When I was five or six I wanted to be a police officer,” she says. “Around nine or 10, I wanted to be a veterinarian. So it all makes sense now, as an animal protection lawyer.”

Nasser is not just an animal protection lawyer: She’s a leading voice in big cat advocacy and an expert on the topic, which was thrust into the spotlight after Netflix’s 2020 documentary series Tiger King brought the world of roadside zoos and private big cat ownership to light—for better or worse.

“It was a dumpster fire of a reality show,” says Nasser, who actually brought evidence of the wildlife crimes of “Joe Exotic” to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Justice, triggering an investigation culminating in his prosecution and conviction for numerous wildlife crimes. While the series focused more on antics than animal welfare, Nasser is willing to seize its foothold on the collective consciousness. She sees an opportunity to shift the conversation toward the real issues of big cat ownership and wildlife trafficking, namely the lax and sometimes nonexistent laws that enable it, and the critical need for reform.

Between her law practice, speaking appearances, an upcoming research fellowship at Harvard University and her pandemic-born podcast, Tiger Talk, Nasser is also a co-executive producer of The Conservation Game, a forthcoming film that has inklings of an exposé, uncovering questionable operations behind several high-profile
conservation entities.

Yet before all this, Nasser was, of course, a UC San Diego student. “I transferred into Warren College from the U.S. Naval Academy, which just wasn’t the right fit for me,” she says. “I went from, basically, boot camp to pledging Chi Omega, from doing drills at dawn to baking cookies with my sorority sisters,” she jokes.

Having found her place, the UC San Diego curriculum quickly spoke to her call to service. She cites the community-based volunteerism of her classes as having had a profound effect on who she is today. “A number of my classes had to do with AIDS and HIV, and involved us going into the community and educating those most at risk of contracting and spreading the virus.

“What stuck with me from that experience was coming from a place free of judgement. I find it most effective to approach advocacy with passion, but no judgement. That’s especially helpful in my work, as some legislators and exotic animal owners presume I’m approaching them with anger and judgement about what they are allowing to happen with animals. But my approach is: I’m here to serve, and contribute what I can to help the community and the people and animals involved.”

Nasser brought that philosophy to Tulane University for law school and George Washington University thereafter, and while her interest in animals never waned, she didn’t know how to turn it into a profession. “Once I learned that animal law existed, I called the few lawyers who practiced it and asked for their story. They were informational interviews, basically, but that’s how you make connections and build relationships, and in the end, so much of life and career is about those relationships.”

Her first full-time project in animal law led her to her current home of New Orleans, where she pursued litigation involving circuses and animals used in entertainment. Nasser specialized in big cats: “I just dug into it and learned all I could over the last 10 years.”

Woman with brown hair looks at a screen.With such expertise, Nasser is often the go-to call when law enforcement around the nation finds exotic animals on the job. In Baton Rouge, La., for instance, police serving a warrant found an ailing white tiger cub chained in a backyard. Nasser was called to help the cub, named “Nola,” through the process of rescue and subsequent placement at a renowned sanctuary, Lions, Tigers and Bears, not even an hour’s drive from UC San Diego.

“San Diegans should know they have one of the very best true sanctuaries right in their backyard,” Nasser said at the sanctuary this May at a panel following a benefit pre-screening of The Conservation Game. On stage with film mates Tim Harrison and Jeff Kremer, the assembled team seemed like animal welfare superheroes, each with a specialized role: Nasser and her legal prowess, Kremer, skilled at identifying big cats by their stripes, and Harrison, the driven and unrelenting leader with a personal stake in the narrative.

The film follows this team uncovering not only the poor conditions, practices and lack of oversight at backyard zoos, but how pervasively their animals are used by acclaimed institutions and even well-known conservationist celebrities.

Prior to wide release, the film has already instigated policy changes at places such as Ohio’s Columbus Zoo and other institutions. But the film’s endgame is nonetheless a cliffhanger—the coming Senate vote on the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would outlaw ownership of big cats as pets and prohibit photo-ops and public interaction experiences that incentivize overbreeding, as well as other protections.

“This is all part of using momentum,” says Nasser. “Empowering people with information, putting pressure on officials to set the laws in place and then having a basis on which to protect those who can’t advocate for themselves. We’re giving a voice to the voiceless, literally.”