The zoo lady weighs in…

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.)

18 responses to “The zoo lady weighs in…

  1. I was horrified when I heard this story today and sadder still when I saw the news. My husband read that there is the possibility that the young men were taunting Tatiana. How incredibly sad her death is.

  2. I am glad to read your post because I couldn’t see any way that it could be other than zookeeper error. And the tiger paid with her life. Very sad, and also unfair.

  3. I also heard that those attacked were taunting the tiger… not a good thing to do. I certainly don’t taunt Maggie if I want to keep fingers and arms intact and scratch free. It isn’t the tiger’s fault and I would have hoped they could have tried harder to save her.

  4. I was so sad to hear about that attack and to know that they killed that beautiful tiger. Tigers are my favorite animals; so regal and serene-looking (most of the time). I cannot help but suspect it was an error on the part of zoo personnel – plus that men were taunting her. Idiots all.

  5. Taunting alone would not aggravate this animal enough to leap a wall she could not otherwise leap. As appalling as it is, it’s not uncommon for zoo visitors to yell and make noises at the animals and the animals basically ignore it, with the exception of the primates who sometimes get aggravated. Something is amiss in this story but Margaret, you’re right. The most striking thing is how unfair it is. We are charged with their care and when we fail they suffer. Roxanne, the only hope she had was if they had had the vet with dart gun at the scene and it doesn’t sound as though they did. Otherwise, they had no choice but to shoot her. It does raise the question of where was the vet? Zoos are supposed to have a high speed response that includes sedation darts immediately available. They likely had them in the cat house but by then she was already out…very very sad for the tiger and the young men attacked.

  6. That was such a sad story. However, I do love the picture of the tiger you have on the site. It made me smile 🙂

  7. Excellent commentary. Thanks!

    By the way, the picture you show of the “low rent space” is, I believe, just the space where the big cats are fed. It’s my understanding they spend the rest of their time in a larger enclosure. The LA Times has a graphic of it.

  8. This story makes me so very sad. The SF Zoo is my “local” zoo. While it’s a little more than an hour away, it’s the zoo that I’ve always gone to and always considered a special place. I haven’t been there in years but it is a pretty special Zoo (in my humble opinion). The Cat House, though, has never been a comfortable place for me. The indoors are just for feeding and all the cats have big outside areas with climbing, swimming, and big old moats.

    While it seems clear to me that zookeeper error is at the heart of this, it saddens me tremendously. I saw a spectacular picture of Tatiana today — what a majestic creature and how sad that she was put in a position where she had to kill and maim and be killed.

    On the other hand, PETA should be ashamed of itself for playing on this tragedy for it’s own ends. Shudder.

    I was glad to hear your thoughts on all this. Thanks for commenting.

  9. This is so tragic on a couple of levels. My husband, who volunteered a good bit of his off time when he lived in New Orleans with the Audoban Park Zoo there, is still so upset over this that he woke up this morning asking if there were any new updates on the story. Our Houston Zoo here is reviewing and practicing emergency response plans here.

    The Siberian Tiger has long been my all time favorite animal. Penguins, the sentimental favorite, but Siberians since I was a little girl and saw one at a zoo. My grandmother took us to the St. Louis Zoo as a little girl as we went to visit my aunt.

    You’re right. I think 5 is a lot for a zoo, too. I think the most I’ve ever seen in any zoo is 3. The husband and I are zoo-aholics and always check out the zoo in any city we visit.

    So very sad. I think it is completely zookeeper error, too. It was my first thought. Thanks for your insights.

  10. meeta- Molly is the best of big cats and I like this picture of her because she looks so very relaxed and content.

    Leslie- thanks for your visit and comments. I checked the link and that sounds right on the enclosures- I forgot S.F. is a year round outdoor zoo. We have to have expansive indoor enclosures for extreme weather here in Chicago. Still- I do wonder about the public feeding and what gets set up in their heads, having to acclimate to eating (so closely linked to hunting deep in their instincts) in front of crowds of people.

    Lizalee- PETA should very often be ashamed of themselves.

    Karen- I understand your husband’s sentiments. When I should be moving on to “Bhutto” I’m still stuck at “tiger.” People who work at zoos usually become extremely attached to the animals- and usually were to begin with.

  11. Vicki, I have been obsessed with this story since it broke on Christmas Day, and I was very much hoping that you would weigh in on it. What a nightmare for everyone involved.

  12. I totally missed this story until I came here.
    Sad all around.
    I enjoyed your thoughtful commentary and in the cookie post … what are those brown strips?
    Beef jerky?

  13. I have been following this story and read in the local newspaper SF Chronicle that one of the victims may have actually tried to enter the tiger compound. There is some evidence that leads to that conclusion. Tatiana may have been taunted and then followed the interloper out. I think there was a combination of errors that led to this tragedy. I feel most sad for that magnificent cat.

    Sometimes when Roger and I are walking along the beach, we notice young people who chase the birds, annoy crabs that have been exposed by a minus tide, tear seastars from their rocks. I don’t know what possesses people to treat animals with such disregard and contempt, but I think it’s rampant in our culture.

  14. I was hoping you would have something to say. Thanks for blogging on this. Whatever this investigation determines, one thing for sure, there’ll be big lawsuits.

    It was amazing that when police arrived, there were no lights, no cameras, and not even a good schematic of the zoo grounds to help police. I assume they have all of these in Chicago.

  15. Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
    ~William Blake (1757-1827)

    I have never been partial to the verb, breeding, or the phrase, multitudinous offspring, by the way, but I shall send this link to try to cheer you up a bit, regardless:

  16. Such a heartbreaking story, whatever its causes. I’d been curious about your thoughts on it; thanks for sharing. Molly is magnificent. (I have a soft spot for striped tawny cats.) And thanks, Bonnie, for the link to the cute baby pics.

  17. We are members of the San Francisco Zoo and I one of my kids’s favorite assistant teachers’ husband works at the zoo. I really like the zoo a lot. It is a beautiful zoo with good temperatures year round and very pleasant outdoor enclosures that have a really good feel to them. In my opinion the outdoor enclosures are no lower or less secure than many of the older, less well-funded zoos that I’ve been too and I’ve been to many it the past few years. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there are many zoos that will determine that they need to build higher walls after this incident.

    This story hit me hard. I get blaming the zoo-keeper (because the buck stops there), but I still feel extremely bad for him and everyone involved.

    Good to hear your thoughts on this, Vicki.

  18. Very sad story indeed. I’m so sorry to hear it.

    Thank you for your input, Vicki, and for the beautiful photo.

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