Tatiana was the captive Siberian Tiger who, on Christmas Day, leaped out of her cave to attack teenage boys who were taunting her. She killed one of them. Zookeepers are investigating how she did it, considering the possibility that the wall of her enclosure was not high enough (technically, it was lower than recommended height by a short distance). Tatiana’s leap has, indeed, has rekindled a long term dialog regarding zoos, and big cats in zoos in particular.

Now, a physicist at Northeastern University in Boston, has produced an analysis indicating that what did happen was possible. However, I think there is a problem with the analysis.

The analysis, reported here and discussed here, investigates the necessary velocity to “350 pound object over a 12.5 foot barrier that is 33 feet away.” The answer is 26.7 miles per hour at an angle of about 55 degrees above horizontal.

I’ve looked over the paper and it seems fine. The analysis is approached using multiple techniques and all the techniques come up with the same result. I’m trusting their math.

There are three factors that are either not fully addressed or that may be problematic.

1) The tiger has to be going just under 30 miles per hour. How long of a distance does a tiger need to attain that speed, and was such a distance available? I suspect a tiger does not need too much distance. They are built as ambush hunters. In other words, they are designed to “spring,” but this is a factor that must be at least considered.

2) What is the air resistance factor in this equation? One of the methods used in this analysis presumes the object in question to be, essentially, a mortar or cannon ball. But Tatiana is a big floppy furry tiger. How does this play in?

I suspect that if these factors are worked into the equation, the result would be the same, but I’m just sayin…

3) A witness at the scene described hearing bushes rattling around then the tiger showed up. This is important evidence that may tell us something in more detail about where the tiger was coming from, or what part of the enclosure the tiger was passing through, during this great leap.

I have no problem believing that this is physically possible. This is for two reasons. One, I’ve seen some pretty amazing leaping in cats, including large cats, and I suspect the range of jumping capacities of the large cats is unmeasured but impressive. Two, it actually happened, so in my own naive way I assume it was possible.

Safety (of both gusts and animals) in the case of large carnivores in zoos is important. I hope that this physical analysis is brought to bear on the investigation.