Monday, December 31, 2007

SF Zoo Tiger Shot for Answering Call of the Wild

Tatiana on 10/26/2007, Photo by Matt
Knoth, licensed under cc3.0
On Christmas Day just after dusk, a four-year-old, 350-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped from her outdoor enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo, then killed a 17-year-old zoo visitor and severely mauled his two young companions before authorities shot her to death. This is reportedly the first time that a tiger has broken out of his or her confines at an accredited zoo, but as long as big cats are displayed for public pleasure, it may not be the last.

Not to make light of tragedy, but, being that I live in the City by the Bay, my mother phoned from Long Island the day after Christmas to make sure there were no ferocious tigers running loose in my neighborhood. I thought this was kind of funny but not unusual, since she usually calls me after every Southern California earthquake to make sure I’m OK. Admittedly (and perhaps obviously), a thorough understanding of geographical proximity doesn’t exactly run in our family, so it didn’t really surprise me that my mom might worry that a tiger could not only escape the zoo, but make her way 2½ miles up Ocean beach, and then head another 2½ miles east through Golden Gate Park to my apartment in the Inner Richmond District. Actually, if this were the country rather than a major city with cops, cars, and other urban hazards, Tatiana could have easily traversed that five-mile distance, so in a primal sense my mom’s fears were not so far-fetched after all.

Public Feeding of Big Cats and Public Safety

I visited the SF Zoo with my parents about 10 years ago, when I was a vegetarian but hadn’t yet quite grasped the concept of animal rights. What I recall most clearly is that we observed the lions feeding in a public demonstration that zoo personnel continue to conduct six days a week. We entered the Lion House, which I remember as a large room with two perpendicular walls of lions behind glass partitions in three levels reaching up to a high ceiling. Dozens of other people watched with us as the lions ripped into slabs of raw red meat with their gigantic jaws, emitting guttural groans I could feel clawing right up my spine.

The SF Zoo also features public feeding of the tigers, but we missed that on our visit. In Defense of Animals (IDA) posits that these displays—in which tigers are coaxed into displaying aggression for the titillation of those who paid to see wild animals do something exciting—are partially to blame for the killing. Apparently, the tigers are in cages behind bars rather than glass during public feedings, and handlers have more direct contact with the animals. In fact, during one of these eating spectacles in December 2006, Tatiana decided to eat more than just the raw meat offered by a zookeeper, and chewed the flesh right off her arm.

Tigers at the PAWS Sanctuary

As a staff writer/editor for IDA, I had the privilege of joining 20 other IDA staff members and volunteers on December 10th for a trip to the Performing Animal Welfare Society's (PAWS) ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., where we saw a number of elephants rescued from zoos as well as some tigers. PAWS is a non-profit organization that only opens its doors to the public a few times a year, so if you ever get the chance to go, I highly recommend it, especially as an educational experience that will enable you to better compare zoos and sanctuaries for safety, comfort, and quality of life. For instance:

- You won’t find any public feeding going on at PAWS, and the tigers are never left unattended—keepers are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (whereas guards were not posted at the SF Zoo’s tiger exhibit during business hours when the Christmas attack took place). PAWS caretakers only interact directly with tigers for the administration of veterinary treatment. At a sanctuary, all interactions with the animals are for the animals’ benefit rather than ours.

- PAWS has 36 tigers living on acres of hilly woods behind the tallest, toughest fence you’re ever likely to see. On the other hand, the SF Zoo’s tiger enclosure, which held four animals before Tatiana’s death, is a rectangle that is merely one short city block in length (that is, less than 200 feet), and even narrower in width. And of course, we know all too well now that their exhibit’s safety features leave much to be desired.

- While profit-oriented zoos breed animals, buy them from dealers, or capture them in the wild for public display, PAWS is dedicated to rescuing animals from abusive situations. The tigers we saw were seized from a misnamed "sanctuary" called Colton Tiger Rescue. California state authorities brought criminal charges against the owner for selling tiger parts on the black market. Apparently, one can buy a tiger pup illegally for about $500, raise the animal to adulthood, and then sell their various body parts for upwards of $20,000. Another freaky fact the guide told us: Some narcotics dealers use tigers as guard animals at drug dens and laboratories.

Finally, I felt that the most convincing evidence of the superiority of sanctuaries over zoos was what I observed with my own eyes. I stood outside the tiger enclosure for about half an hour, and only two tigers came up to the public viewing fence for a close visit during that time (though others could be seen dozing in the distance). Of course I was greatly astounded with their size and presence, but it soon occurred to me that these tigers interacted with one another just like my two domestic cats, Zelda and Jasmine, do in my little apartment. That is, they seemed genuinely happy and content, and showed none of the neurotic symptoms you’re likely to see in cats at the zoo.

I would guess the reason for this marked difference is that these tigers are living for their own pleasure instead of someone else’s. I sincerely hope that SF Zoo officials, and those at other zoos around the country, will come to this realization, and send their tigers to accredited sanctuaries like PAWS and close their big cat exhibits for good.

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