It takes a lot to get me agitated when I’m stuffed to the gills with Christmas cookies but I’m really upset so here goes:
Zoo Keeper error.
That is the only answer to any and all questions about why or how an Amur tiger would or could attack and kill one person and maul two others. The only answer.
Beyond being terribly upset, I had a couple thoughts as I read that news item. How could the zoo officials possibly, possibly, say that at first they feared 4 tigers had escaped but then discovered it was just the one, Tatiana? There was a time delay between when the attacks were reported to police and when the news was received by the media- and even if that was only a few minutes because it was picked up by media on police scanner- how could you possibly not know in a nanosecond how many of your tigers are in captivity and how many are on the lamb (so to speak)? Something is odd there, perhaps in the reporting.
This same tiger,Tatiana, attacked a keeper a year ago. The keeper, during a feeding session, put both arms back into the animal’s enclosure space and pressed her face against the grill to reach a dropped item. That is zoo keeper error. The San Francisco Zoo is one of the only zoos in the country where the public gets to watch tigers during feeding time and here’s my question about that: Cats don’t like it when you watch them eat. Even our domestic housecats flatten their ears and look frankly irritated if there’s commotion around their immediate space while they’re eating. Sophie would rather go hungry and leave the scene until she can eat in peace. I would think the instincts of a wild tiger would lead them to be just a tad wired if they’re getting their giant chunk ‘o meat in front of noisy children and curious onlookers. I wonder if it’s a good idea for big cat feeding to be a public event?
Tatiana came from the Denver Zoo where a zoo keeper was killed in February by Jorge, a six year old jaguar. That attack was ruled zoo keeper error because the keeper had the primary door to Jorge’s cage open while she was in the passageway. Big cats are in enclosures that have multiple passages and safety systems on the doors so that there is never direct contact between keeper and animal unless the animal is sedated for medical care. There are also video cameras that keep track of all activity.
Johnny Carson holding baby tigers aside, these are wild animals who deserve to be regarded, respected and treated as such. They are not on this earth for our amusement. Even though they have been bred and born in captivity- and keep in mind that Tatiana and over 95% of her fellow zoo cats have been, so the animal rights position of “set them free!” is idiocy- they are still wild animals with powerful instincts.
In the wild, a Siberian (Amur) Tiger would only kill for two reasons. Either she’s hungry or she’s defending herself from some threat. Because the Amur Tiger is endangered (they are threatened by you-know-who and as Miz S. says, stop doing that! ) it makes sense for us to keep some in captivity so we can, hopefully, breed them where they are safe and sound, at reasonable levels. The day we have no more Amur tigers on this planet will be a very sad day indeed. If, in the course of keeping them in captivity, we have them where the public can see them and become educated and concerned about them in a way that helps preserve the species in the wild, that’s a good thing.
And yet. The business of keeping animals comes with huge responsibilities. A responsibility to know them, respect them, shelter them securely in the absolute best situations and to never leave them feeling hungry or threatened. Otherwise, they might kill somebody and then you have a very serious case of zookeeper error.
I had another thought when I read this news story. I haven’t been to the San Francisco Zoo so I don’t want to be throwing stones here but, if you were a tiger, how would you feel about the feng shui of this enclosure? Tatiana looks like she was living in a very low rent space to me, when she was still living. I mean that’s tangential to her escape because she surely didn’t plot a break-out on the basis of no furniture, but still, it would be nice if the cat had logs and rocks and places to climb (other than over the wall, which I doubt she did) both indoors and out.
Five tigers is a big population for a zoo. San Francisco must have the required amount of space because they are in good standing with the AZA, the governing board that accredits zoos and aquariums, but tigers are solitary animals who aren’t enclosed together unless they are a breeding pair. AZA zoos take part in a Species Survival Plan that controls the numbers of captive Amur tigers and that population is held steady at about 160 tigers with only 8-10 pairs approved each year for reproduction. Of those, there will be approximately 5 successful litters of 2.4 cubs. Fully a third of the captive tiger population is not in the breeding pool due to age and kinship factors. If you do the math, caring for tigers properly requires a lot of space. That space needs to be reflective of the animal’s natural habitat and provide ample enrichment to stimulate them mentally and physically.
Anyway, this recent incident is a zoo nightmare. At LPZ we have meetings each week where animal deaths are reported and discussed. We all feel terrible when an animal, any animal, dies. (Okay, so maybe I don’t care much what happens to the naked mole rats when they eat some of their multitudinous offspring.) Recently, one of our harbor seals died as the oldest zoo seal on record. With an average lifespan of 20 years, she was into her mid-thirties and still, it was a difficult time for zoo personnel. If anything happened to Molly, our Amur tiger, we would be devastated. (Molly currently has a visiting suitor because she has been approved for breeding.) And, in the end, there can be no other answer than zoo keeper error. Whether it is by accident, inattention, conditions or vandalism, the ultimate responsibility always comes back to the zoo. It will this time, too.
(Molly at Lincoln Park Zoo. In the winter time, when it’s quiet, zoo docents make pinatas for all of the animals full of treats and interesting things to help keep them occupied.)