Tiger tales - Page 2

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
Photo by Charles Russo

I still work occasionally as a communications consultant to nonprofits, and in my day job I am a manager of a small state agency and work regularly with elected officials. So when I look at this story through the lens of a behaviorist, I think about the traits of various human subspecies — politicians, bureaucrats, managers, spin doctors, journalists, self-proclaimed experts, and supposed guardians of health and safety. Frankly, I am not impressed.

Tatiana was killed for being a tiger. Tigers have only one self. They are what they are; end of story. Humans are a different order of being: we are capable of self-deception. We can lie to ourselves, we can deny what is right in front of us, we can try to shift blame, and we can avoid the things we know we should face.

And thereon hangs this tiger tale.


People have often asked me over the years why my stepfather had all of his animals. I like to tell them it was because he thought he was Tarzan. It's not the absolute truth, but it is as valid as any other answer.

It started in the 1970s, when he just drove down to Florida one day and came back with a tiger cub.

For her first several months there, Gretchen had the run of the farm. I remember one weekend when Mike was teaching us to shoot: my sister Gwenn was lying in the bed of a battered red Toyota pickup, one eye closed and the other sighting down a rifle barrel at a paper bull's-eye. She never saw the tiger stalking her from behind. As soon as Gretchen was near enough, she closed in a sudden burst, easily cleared the side of the bed, and landed squarely on Gwenn's back. Gwenn just huffed, "Gretchen, get off," and calmly squeezed the trigger.

Gretchen, however, was soon too large to be treated like a funny-looking dog. Mike hired a backhoe operator to dig a moat around a knoll where an abandoned farmhouse perched. The man arrived on a day when Mike's very wild foster daughter, Dianne, had cooked brownies. The backhoe operator didn't realized they were laced with pot and ate a few. It took a long time to finish the job, in part because the guy kept nodding off, and in the end the moat had a peculiar shape.

Mike didn't mind. He just put up an acircular fence around the acircular moat and called it Tiger Island.

The fence was 12 feet tall and built of heavy-gauge chain link. A barbed-wire overhang jutted inward from the top at a 45-degree angle. A tiger might be able to leap to the top of a 12-foot fence, but the moat meant there was no solid place from which Gretchen could launch herself.

If she tried to hurdle the fence, she'd have to start at least 10 feet back. And if she crossed the moat and pulled herself onto the narrow bank, she would have to jump straight up. That would mean an encounter with the overhang. She wouldn't climb the fence because chain link is too wobbly. It was the way the moat and the fence and the overhang worked together that made the compound secure. Even when the moat ran dry in later years, a tiger would still have had to jump from the bottom of the dry moat, making the total leap on the order of 16 or 17 feet.

In other words, a stoned heavy-equipment operator and a somewhat oddball zoologist, with a few thousand dollars' worth of chain link and barbed wire, managed to make a very secure tiger pen. I have to wonder why the privatized San Francisco Zoo, with millions of dollars in bond money and a director who earns $339,000 a year, couldn't.


Early reports from San Francisco described the tiger grotto as having a wall and a moat as if they were separate things and gave dimensions for both — initially 15 feet for the moat and 20 feet for the wall. When I read that, I began examining aerial photos to look for other points of egress. I studied the height and the angle of the side walls.

All tigers can climb trees. Amur habitat includes mountain ranges.