Eye of the Tiger

27 12 2007

By Jill Ettinger

The news out of San Francisco that a Siberian tiger escaped its confinement and killed a Zoo visitor is tragic and shocking for several reasons.  It’s certainly going to taint Christmas for years to come for friends and family members of the victim. It also imparts safety concerns for future zoo-goers. But the most tragic result of this situation is the way in which it creates a deeper misunderstanding between humans and the “natural” world.

According to the US State Department, only 30% of Americans hold passports. And roughly the same number of our population lives in rural areas where wildlife sightings are more common. Urban dwellings, where the majority of our country resides, consider their resident wildlife mostly as “pests”: possum, squirrels, pigeons, rats and raccoons. While the rest of our citizens have more frequent access to wild animals, our slimly populated rural communities are often only exposed to cattle, pigs, chickens, goats and horses. Few people actually regularly – if ever – see our amazing indigenous wildlife like grizzly bears, gray wolves, alligators, mountain lions, the el Segundo blue butterfly, peregrine falcons and bald eagles, let alone the other amazing creatures on the planet. Except, maybe, at zoos.

Zoos have been around for centuries, often intertwined with traveling circuses. Their entertainment value has turned educational in the last several decades. Folks like Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo were instrumental in this, bringing fun and funky creatures onto late shows, piquing interest in parents looking for ways to bond with, educate and enthrall their own offspring. The annual zoo membership became a must-have in many urban households. Most earnestly offering a way to understand the world we live in, zoos aim to be places of learning. Interactive education is a memorable way to experience these foreign ambassadors. The curious creatures playing in their “habitats,” the noises they make, the smells – all play a part in connecting children to the wild world in a way a its Sesame Street stuffed counterpart can never offer. There is nothing quite as magnificent as a trumpeting elephant standing just several feet away from a young child.

Like many children, I grew up in a zoo-frequenting household.  It seems like my parents took us once a week. It was never enough. I have more memories of being at the zoo than I have of any other place, besides home. Even more than school. It’s no wonder that I have a deep love for and fascination with animals. My diet, which was always animal-adverse, no doubt stayed that way because of the many hours I spent looking into the eyes of llamas and gorillas, flamingos and zebras.

In the summer of 1995 I took a position as the “lead attendant” at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where I had spent so much of my childhood. (At the time, it was ranked in the top ten zoos in the country). The job was puzzle-piecing a comprehensive schedule of eighty or so high school students with summer jobs monitoring the interactive deer, kangaroo and goat yards, as well as various “play areas” where sugar-hyper kids pretending to be animals mostly fell off the slides, swings and rides. Because I was lead attendant, I was privy to lots of relationships with senior zoo management and was able to get an internship during the off-season in the big cats/rhino/bear department. It was like winning the lottery. I was going to shadow a trainer and interact intimately with some of the most amazing life forms on the planet.

I’d never been so thrilled and devastated at the same time. My very first experience of the internship was confounding. I stood there watching as they put down an old female Siberian tiger who had cancerous growths all over her underbelly. The vets knocked her out with a dart so that they could get a better look at her stomach and then decided to just not wake her up. The cancer was extensive, and it would be painful for all involved to let her continue. There before my eyes lay one of the world’s most stunning creatures, dead from an illness extremely rare in the wild. My hand discreetly touched her warm fur as they carried her out. My watery eyes drifted to the other tigers that remained in the cages nearby – they were her children.

Over the few months of the internship, I would interact with cheetahs, leopards, jaguars and lions. There is nothing more terrifying than an angry, caged, hungry lion staring you in the face and roaring (except one out of its cage, I suppose). I can still remember the smell as I would clean his cage after we fed and moved him into the yard. Every night he would rub his thick mane on the walls, leaving black oil marks that we would scrub constantly. In the wild, leaving their scent is crucial to marking territory. This lion was haunted each night by a strange creature named Clorox.

There were black, brown, spectacled and polar bears too that we fed. If anyone could rival the lion’s intensity, it was the polar bears. They would growl and bark and swipe at me with their giant white paws through the bars. But I worked most closely with two baby black rhinos. They were a trade for a few white rhinoceroses that were supposed to be going to a mating colony in China when the truck they were on was hijacked and they were poached, killed for their horns believed to be valuable tonic used in traditional remedies, but illegal.

I’d see about one animal death per month at the zoo over the year I spent there. The keepers were some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. They cared deeply for their responsibilities; these animals did not die from neglect in that sense. Food was a major issue, and of course confinement. In the wild, rhinos will nurse until three years old. The two we cared for were not quite 18 months old and therefore still required milk. There is no commercially available rhino milk. We would cook up gallons of a concoction of cow milk and sugar and water, but they would constantly battle massive diarrhea. There would be weekly formula tweaks from the physicians to no avail. Their immune systems were so compromised that the female ended up contracting a disease – apparently transmitted from rats – and died less than six months after I left.

Zoos all over the world are constantly faced with animal illnesses and deaths. Humans have evolved to live in confined spaces, but wild animals – well, we call them wild for a reason. Some of them have been bred in captivity, but that’s only in the last few generations. The saddest part of all this – the tragedy of the escaped tiger in San Francisco – is that we keep them there to remind us of the world we can’t see everyday; the world that is in jeopardy by our neglect, our fear, and at the mercy of our addictions to fossil fuels. We keep them in captivity not so much as a way to understand and respect them, but in our uniquely human way of conquering and collecting the things we don’t understand or respect.

When we stop trying to own Nature, perhaps we’ll be more inclined to take measures to actually enhance the habitats of our fellow earthlings. It’s quite sad that a tiger fatally attacked someone. She certainly didn’t do it out of hunger. It is an unbelievably horrifying and unfortunate commentary on what our culture has done to Nature. We live in a world where Siberian Tigers number less than 500 in the wild, and more than double that, are pacing cages in zoos.

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