Tiger tales - Page 5

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

28 press conference when he said, "How she jumped that high is beyond me." She may not have jumped high at all; I suspect she just jumped long.

I base this on my observations of tigers and my study of grotto photographs, but it is supported by history. There are three known escapes from Tatiana's grotto and one near escape. In one case the escape went unwitnessed.

Keepers Jack Castor and John Alcaraz walked by the grotto one day a few years back and saw a Bengal named Jack wandering outside, Alcaraz told me by phone. They yelled at him, and he jumped back in.

David Rentz witnessed another escape in 1959, when he was a young Zoo volunteer. He's an entomologist in Australia now, and he recently wrote in his blog that the tiger "flew across the moat from his position on the other side ... and sprung back to the grotto all in one graceful movement." There had been previous reports this same tiger could jump the moat.

Then there's the near escape witnessed by Marian Roth-Cramer in 1997. In an interview in the Dec. 27 San Francisco Chronicle, she said, "I saw the tiger leap over the moat." This makes me wonder why so much coverage has focused on the height of the wall and not the width of the moat.

Media coverage has also focused on whether the men taunted or teased Tatiana. I find this discussion ludicrous. Zoos know animal abuse comes with the territory. They must anticipate it, prevent it, and prepare for its consequences. It's part of the job. And besides, how does one taunt a tiger?

When I think of taunting, I think of the French kibitzers and King Arthur's men in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a scene reprised in Spamalot. I imagine some kids shouting into the grotto, "Your mother was a wild boar, and you father smelt of porcelainberries. I scent-mark in your general direction."

Teasing a confined animal means tempting it with something it can't have — a ball, say, or your throat.

Tatiana wasn't teased. She got what she wanted.

Tigers attack for limited reasons — they see you as prey, they see you as a threat to them, their cubs, or their food, or they dislike you because of something you did to them. Perhaps Tatiana saw the young men as a threat. Perhaps they pissed her off. But a simpler explanation is that their behavior got the cat's attention, and perhaps they crossed the fence and got too close to the edge, until at some point Tatiana identified Kulbir Dhaliwal as prey that had come within range. It seems significant that the attack occurred at twilight, since tigers are crepuscular, meaning they are most active then. It's their favorite time to hunt.

Naturalist and western novelist Dane Coolidge wrote in 1901 that Indians classify tigers as game killers, cattle lifters, or man killers. People have suggested tigers become human killers because they develop a taste for human flesh. I believe tigers will eat almost anything — but they're wary of taking on prey that might fight back effectively. They lose any hesitancy when they discover just how vulnerable we humans are. Tatiana proved she had no inhibitions about dining on human flesh when she attacked keeper Lori Kamejan in 2006.

Carlos Sousa Jr. apparently tried to distract Tatiana from her attempted "kill," and I use that term loosely since tigers naturally feed on prey that is still alive, and captive tigers are in-between creatures, psychologically speaking. Wild cubs learn from their mothers to dispatch prey effectively, but captive-bred tigers are never taught that skill. In terms of hardware, they may be the world's finest killers, but their software is buggier than Windows Vista.

Tigers often have to protect their prey after an attack. They are followed by wild dogs and bears that try to scavenge their kills, and herd animals will sometimes try to rescue a herdmate.