From the beginning it was inevitable that lawyers would descend upon the San Francisco Zoo in the wake of the Christmas Day mauling of three young men. Though evidence of tiger-baiting and intoxication is mounting (eyewitness reports, a shoe just inside the enclosure with blood nearby, a vodka bottle inside the victims' car), it’s also clear that Tatiana the Siberian tiger was able to escape her enclosure altogether too readily.
Everyone’s talking about it, speculating wildly at times. And now the victims of the tiger attack are suing the zoo, though one is no longer here to take part directly. He’s dead of a puncture wound to the neck, among other injuries. (Ironically, according to one eyewitness report, he was the only one of his group not observed taunting the animal.)
Lions and tigers may look docile (well, sort of) from across a moat, but nothing beats a birdseye view of a full-sized tomcat tiger and his exposed, fearsome canines to earn your self-protective respect. Granted, this experience took place while the beast was anesthetized, but it was hugely impressive to this future vet nonetheless.
Five hundred pounds of cat is freakishly frightening when you know how much damage even a five-pounder can do when properly motivated.
Which brings me to an earlier point: Motivating tigers is not a bloodsport I’d recommend. There are far easier ways to earn your five minutes of fame and reach a hefty settlement than by taunting a tiger and having your limbs ripped off in a full-scale assault no unarmed human could ever survive. There seems little doubt that all three would have been killed in the absence of the gun that laid Tatiana low that day.
Enclosure safety in this instance was an obvious concern — and a huge liability in light of the dire consequences. Local expert Ron Magill (here in Miami) knows a lot about tiger attacks. We had a deadly one at our Metrozoo ten years ago. And he’s at a loss to explain how Tatiana could have made the alleged leap that resulted in her rampage, calling it, "unlikely."
Regardless of the circumstances, the zoo’s in big trouble. That’s in part why they’ve since raised the wall height to reflect newer standards for tiger enclosures (a full four feet higher than the original wall).
That’s also why the lawyers were circling overhead about three minutes after the tragedy, jockeying for position as they plotted in their first-year law school-inculcated ways to argue that the zoo’s animals represent an “attractive nuisance.”
A lot of us wildlife defender-types are apprehensive about the mess the lawyers may make of this debacle. I feel like Horton on the sidelines, already imagining the crescendo of the mob chant. The strains of, “Kill that dust speck!” are rising into the air as I write, just in time to condemn tigers who attack (for any reason) to a speedy death by dart and pink juice cocktail.
Tatiana herself attacked a zookeeper last year. It will surely be argued that she should have been euthanized after she’d proved her penchant for violence. She was just being a tiger, they'd sagely concluded, ultimately granting her a stay of execution. Will the same standard apply after the attorneys in this case get through with the zoo or will all of Whoville suffer the consequences of a newly-imposed one-strike policy?
Yet if polled, no keeper would back such a policy. They see these creatures close up every day and they know exactly what they can do. Watching a tiger tear into a ten-pound hunk of horseflesh is enough to raise the hairs on the back of anyone’s neck. There’s consequently no delusion on their part about the danger these creatures pose. And when tigers do attack humans, their caretakers are always the first to defend them.
To wit, ten years ago a keeper at Miami’s MetroZoo was killed by a tiger’s swift bite to the back of the neck. His express wish that no tiger ever be euthanized [as a result of exercising innate behavior against a human] spared that animal’s life. After all, given half a chance there’s no tiger unwilling to commit a Tatiana-style atrocity.
There’s no escaping the reality of this case: One human is dead. Two others were severely mauled. One tiger is dead. It’s a tragedy that could have been avoided — though we don’t yet know how; the criminal investigation is still ongoing.
Yet when the collection of facts surrounding this case comes to light. I hope we can all sit down to assess the damage using some higher math: What’s a human worth? What’s a tiger worth? What percentage of the blame lies with the zoo and how much with the humans involved? How does all that add up?
To that point, here's a fact that has been eluding the media frenzy over the past week: Ecologically speaking, one endangered Siberian tiger is arguably priceless in terms of her genetic impact on the survival of her entire species. Will the humans be held liable at all for their role should it be shown that their wanton disregard for zoo rules — not to mention the possibility of breaking and entering — led directly to the attack and subsequent need for firearm intervention?
That’s why in my wildest daydreams I envision a society where a zoo might effectively countersue the plaintiffs for their reckless ways, recouping zoological society losses (and the planet’s) for having been forced to kill a valuable creature. Ultimately, who was the “attractive nuisance”? It remains to be seen, but maybe — just maybe — in this case it wasn’t the cat.