Tiger tales

I grew up with tigers. I built tiger pens. And the tiger grotto at the privatized San Francisco Zoo was a disaster waiting to happen
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Photo by Charles Russo

More on the SF Zoo:
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>>Editorial: Take back the zoo
>>Opinion: Shut down the zoo
>>From 1999: The Zoo Blues

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When I first heard about the attack at the San Francisco Zoo, I felt strangely vindicated to learn that a Siberian tiger had been involved. I am irrationally prejudiced when it comes to big cats: I don't like Siberians. Of all the tigers, lions, jaguars, and other exotic animals I have known in my day — and I grew up on a wild animal farm, so I have known quite a few — the only ones that truly frightened me were a chimpanzee named Lolita and a pair of Siberians (they're known as Amurs now) that lived in an old shed about 100 feet from my front door.

When I read in March that two chimps from a California primate sanctuary had attacked a 62-year-old man, biting off much of his face, tearing off his foot, and mutiutf8g his genitals, I thought of Mike's thumb. And when I heard that Tatiana had attacked three young men, killing one of them, I immediately thought of his ear.

Mike Bleyman was a biologist who built a research and breeding compound outside Pittsboro, NC, and like many exotic-animal fanatics he had a tendency to lose body parts. Fortunately, the surgeons in Chapel Hill were skilled at sewing them back on.

Mike was also my stepfather. My parents divorced when I was in junior high, and when my mother moved in with Mike on "the farm," I went with her.

I was present when Lolita bit Mike's thumb right through the bone, almost severing it completely. I was away at college when the tiger got him.

Mike had arranged a trade with the Albuquerque Zoo in New Mexico — two Siberians and a Himalayan black bear for a young Sumatran tiger. Mike hit both tigers with tranquilizer darts. But ketamine, the drug of choice for sedating big cats, takes several minutes to work, and being an impatient man who didn't play by the rules, Mike entered the cage before the recommended time had passed. When he approached the male, the female roused herself. She slashed Mike across the back, dislocated his elbow, and removed his ear.

The fact that Mike was able to extract himself from the cage alive is testament to the fact that the ketamine had at least begun to have an impact. Siberian tigers are not creatures you want to mess with.

Our other tigers, all Bengals, were sociable and playful. As I walked by they would chuffle their hellos. I would chuffle back and reach through the fence to scratch their necks or rub their noses. The Siberians, however, had a flat affect, rarely vocalized, and menacingly tracked passing humans.

I know it's not fair to judge an entire subspecies by two individuals, and these cats had every reason to be sullen. They had evolved to preside as alpha predators over rugged territories of hundreds of square miles, and they were being forced to live sedentary lives in a gloomy shed probably no bigger than 200 square feet. But fair or not, they freaked me out.

I have been thinking a lot about those cats in the past couple of weeks as I have read the news stories coming from San Francisco. As someone who has bottle-fed several cubs, built my share of tiger cages, and shoveled more than my share of tiger shit, I know more than a little about Felis tigris.

I have been equally fascinated, if not more so, by the behavior of the other species that populates this tragic tale, the one known as Homo sapiens. In addition to being a former tiger farmer, I am also a journalist who once covered San Francisco politics.