A Tale of Two Tigers: Escape in Miami, Revenge in Russia
Consider two tigers: This past Saturday, one specimen scaled the fourteen-foot fence that lines his Miami enclosure to give chase to an obnoxious gibbon (also on the lam, as it turned out). Another systematically hunted down his would-be poacher in backwoods, southeastern Russia. The common denominator? Exemplary human hubris.
Tiger tales like these always make me think of Chris Rock. I know it sounds odd, but he inevitably is called to mind on the basis of one particular stand-up act. After one or another various circus-based tiger attacks, this comedian sagely quipped, "That tiger ain’t go crazy. That tiger went tiger!"
On the subject of modern tiger-on-human violence, truer words were never spoken. Which is why we should all take a moment to thank this man for his enlightened comedic tirade (NSFW!) on the subject.
Anyhoo, the point is this: Tigers will sometimes behave violently not because they have suddenly acquired a very strange lust for human blood; rather, because they’ve simply gone the normal route and played the predator role to perfection — much to the panicked chagrin of zoo-goers or circus audiences who expect 500-pound cats to remain permanently ensconced within their pretty little landscapes and jump through hoops of fire for their infinite amusement.
Recall the story of Tatiana the tiger and the 2007 Christmas Day mauling at the San Francisco Zoo. In a 2008 blog post (of which I am especially proud), I lambasted the irrational way adverse interactions with big cats is played out in the media. It always seems to come down to how tigers employ their feline wiles unfairly, using their outsized muscles with altogether unnecessary roughness. This, despite the stupid (or careless) human interactions that invariably accompany these violent events.
For the love of God, the cats are just being cats! They just happen to be very, very, big undomesticated cats. If a nine-pound feral tomcat can lay me up in a hospital for two days, what exactly is it that we expect from his wild, five hundred-pound cousin?
Then there’s this aspect to consider (from my 2008 blog post after Tatiana's shooting):
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 counter-sue the plaintiffs for their reckless ways, recouping zoological society losses (never mind 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.
Fast forward to Miami. In last weekend's debacle, Parrot Jungle Island (a place I refuse to frequent on the basis of its "Largest croc in captivity!" approach to animal stewardship) employees were forced to chase down Mahesh, a 500-pound Bengal that had escaped his enclosure, allegedly after suffering the taunts of Watson, a white-handed gibbon who was displaying an insufferable lack of decorum following his own handy escape.
Clearly, this place has a containment problem, though in Watson’s case, "escape" is perhaps too strong a word. After all, the primate’s door was admittedly left ajar. I mean, what would YOU do if you were a lesser ape? OK, so I might not enrage the tiger, but I would almost certainly entertain myself by wreaking as much havoc as possible.
Though deftly spun by Parrot Jungle’s PR machinery into an adorable Curious George escapade (that just happened to lead to mass panic), I'll not have my intelligence insulted by their soothing, storybook prattle.
After all, hundreds of people’s lives were put at unnecessary risk. This, because the people who design enclosure walls underestimate the athletic prowess of a properly motivated cat of any size. (This, too, was a factor in Tatiana's case.) It also happens because mediocre animal display attractions everywhere are financially stretched to the breaking point, which invariably leads to the cutting of corners — in this case, with below par policies, procedures, safeguards and infrastructure.
Parrot Jungle's spin and The Miami Herald's cheeky front page coverage aside, this was a frightening event that showcased the illnesses inherent to so many of our substandard animal theme parks — not the amusing antics of a wayward ape. Though people were hurt in their justifiable panic, it was sheer luck that no one was mauled. (And it doesn't take much when a tiger is already enraged.)
Then there’s the behavior of the tiger in far-flung, southeastern Russia to contemplate. Indeed, this late '90s story, recently published in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (by Canadian author, John Vaillant), reveals that some profound meditation on the nature of animal emotions is perhaps in order. It's yet another reminder of what animals are capable of (again) when properly motivated.
Yes, "just when you thought it was safe to go back into the taiga" comes this tale of human-on-tiger violence and its aftermath: the highly personal vendetta perpetrated by an animal.
In a heretofore unheard of reversal of roles, this rare Amur tiger (at most, 400 left in the world) allegedly sought revenge on the poacher who stole his catches (from a favorite trap), and whom he killed after being shot in the paw.
In this true story, the tiger tracks him (presumably by scent alone) to his remote cabin. He then ransacks it, slays his dogs, and lies in wait. It's a tale for the ages. But one modernly verifiable by ballistic science after positively identifying the bullet in the tiger’s paw.
As you can easily surmise, the story doesn’t end well for the humans involved. Or, presumably, for the tiger, if the presence of ballistics evidence is any indication. But then, I’ve not yet read the critically acclaimed (if supposedly borderline anthropomorphized) book yet, so I cannot honestly reveal any more of the story than I have already.
All I do know is that I’d like to think these two true-to-life tiger dramas reveal more than just a "naughty" cat or vendetta-driven "psychopath," as the Amur apparently has been cast in his home country.
Could it be that our human encroachment is ultimately to blame for the kind of tiger aggression the media loves to twist into its incorrigibly sanitizing, anthropomorphizing, humanizing storylines?
Dr. Patty Khuly