TatianaThe killing of one visitor and maiming of two others by Tatiana, a Tiger, in the S.F. Zoo raises questions that go far beyond one cat and three victims. One might ask: Should there even be zoos?
We do not yet know what happened in the San Francisco Zoo yesterday, but some details are starting to emerge. It looks like Tatiana leaped out of her enclosure. If that proves to be true, we should not be too surprised. Cats have amazing, and I believe under investigated muscular ability. The 1.2 foot long cats we are cat sitting for routinely leap 600% of their length to achieve such lofty heights as the top of the refrigerator. I have seen a leopard, carrying in her own mouth an impala weighing more than herself, leap straight up 300% of her own body length, into a tree. I have about 0% confidence in zoo-ologists (not zoologists, but rather, zoo experts) to have the remotest idea of the behavioral and physical limitations and potentials of most of the animals they keep.
So the first question that emerges is whether or not animals are properly enclosed with respect to the safety of visitors. Likely, most animal are well secured in most zoos. But that is little consolation if you are the person standing in the path of the tiger.
Again, we do not yet know the details, but there are reports that one of the victims may have taunted the tiger. Since we do not know that this is true, let us speak in generalities. The truth is that it is fairly routine for zoo visitors to behave poorly. The last time I saw a tiger in a zoo was in the Minnesota Zoo. As I stood quietly gazing at the amazing beasts, a group of ten-to-twenty year olds happened by, looked at the tiger for a few seconds, then the three of them who were holding an orange drink of some sort emptied their drinks over the edge of the enclosure, with the tops and straws falling in as well, yelling something (that i did not understand) to the animals who, at the moment, were fast asleep and ignoring the visitors.
There was at one time (it may still be there) in the Franklin Park zoo, at the gorilla enclosure, a spot where you could see the apes from the path, but were not allowed to walk close, not allowed to walk on this small grassy strip. If you did walk on this spot, a recorded voice would intone: “You are not allowed into this area. An alarm has been sounded. Authorities have been alerted. Stay were you are until authorities have arrived!” or words to that effect. The sign telling people to not go on the grass had a note warning that an alarm would go off if you stepped there.
Naturally, every teenager who entered that zoo had to go and set off the alarm at least once during their visit. And a few adults. What a way to impress your date.
So, the second question is, should there not be a code of conduct for zoo visitors that is enforced? I can think of many reasons why there should not be such a code, all of which have to do with the zoo’s finances, and none with the safety and well being of the animals.
It is the case that every now and then a visitor to a zoo is killed and sometimes consumed by large zoo-bound carnivores somewhere in the world. Usually this is because the visitor has entered the cage, climbed over the wall, swam across the moat, whatever. The same is true of visitors to wild places. Very few tourists are killed by leopards or lions but most of those that are have stepped out of the car to get a better picture of the lion they see in the grass (perhaps not noticing the lion they don’t see in the grass), or decide to go jogging in the bush (for one last time), that sort of thing.
In other words, there really is a fine line between Tatiana leaping from her cage and killing a visitor who is not taunting her and a visitor taunting an animal in the worst way possible … by entering the cage in a drunken and rowdy state .. being killed and eaten. By OSHA standards, or in a court of law in most countries, there is of course not such a fine line. But from the tiger’s perspective, there may be no line at all.
Then there is the question of what makes an animal dangerous. Now, in the case of Tatiana, she was killed by police because she was loose, had attacked a number of people, and there were still people running around in the zoo. The only better solution would have been to dart her, but the police probably did not have darts. But there are many instances per year of a large carnivore maiming or killing someone who is not actually a visitor at a zoo, but rather, a person on a game farm, possibly a worker or possibly a friend or relative of a worker. I (vaguely) knew a guy in South Africa who was eaten by one of his lions not too long ago. A young girl was attacked by a tiger in the upper Midwest last year. A “tame” bear damaged someone recently here as well.
In many of these situations, a government agency … the one in charge of issuing permits to posses a wild animal … makes a determination that the animal is dangerous and issues orders to have the animal killed.
It is very reasonable to postulate that among the tigers in captivity, some are more likely to kill a person than others. The same can probably be said of bears and lions. But that is not at all what is being assumed by these determinations. Officially, an animal goes from one that need not be killed on sight to one that must be killed, even if it is well caged. In other words, the animal are treated the same way that people are treated. Innocent (no death sentence) until proven guilty, but if proven guilty, executed as a killer. There is no gray area, no fine line, in this reasoning.
But certainly, it is all, from the animal’s perspective, gray. It should always be assumed that large carnivores are deadly…. that’s why we call them l a r g e … c a r n i v o r e s…. See? Carn – i – vores = meat eater. Large meat eater. Large meat eating beast. Look out!
Why do people not get this?
People do not get this because of the efforts of many of the same people who support zoos, as well as in the broader world of wildlife conservation. For instance, in an effort to encourage feelings and actions and legislation favoring or mandating wolf conservation, it became common for pro-wolfies to intone “There has never been a documented case of a wolf killing a person…” or words to that effect. The only way that this can be true is if you define “documented” so narrowly as to exclude almost everything else we know of history. As my old friend Gil used to say back in high school: “Hey, teacher, how do you know there was a World War two?????” Wolves have eaten people.
The problem with this strategy is that the emotional or sympathetic basis for conservation rapidly unravels the moment the animal of interest (such as wolves) eat some hapless child or takes down a jogger at unawares. Well, the first time that happens, the authorities can simply declare that particular wolf to be a felon of the worst kind, run it down, and execute it. But once it starts to become routine, that will no longer work. A better strategy might be to incorporate the fact that wolves (or tigers or whatever) are large carnivores into their management, understanding, and appreciation.
Getting back to zoos. Should zoos even exist? One of the reasons they should exist, it is said, is because they inspire so many to appreciate wild animals, so they will grow up supporting conservation, maybe even getting involved in conservation itself.
There are several reasons that I do not believe this. For each person that I know who is an active conservationist inspired as a child by zoos, I know ten or twenty active conservationists who never visited a zoo as a child. (Based on a very unofficial survey, but I’ll buy it until proven otherwise.) I see people at zoos, and a few are appreciating the animals, and notably, these are often the people who express mixed feelings about the animals being caged. Most zoo-goers might as well be at the amusement park riding roller coasters.
Also, if you ever look behind the scenes in a zoo you may not like what you see. Depending on the species, there are often anywhere from a few to many individuals who can’t be shown to the public because they are so badly damaged … sometimes (in the case of primates, especially) due to self abuse arising from being deeply disturbed mentally … that they can’t be shown without alarming visitors.
I am not necessarily opposed to the existence of zoos. But I might be. I go back and forth. I would like to see some organization of rational people sponsor an independent look at zoos and all they do, have done, are doing, and should do.