“Tiger kills man,” read the headlines. I'm sure you know the rest: On Christmas Day, Tatiana, a 350-pound Siberian tiger escaped from her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo at closing time and attacked three zoo guests, killing 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. of San Jose and seriously wounding two other young men, 19- and 23-year-old brothers, also of San Jose. Police confronted, then shot and killed, the escaped tiger.
As I write this, the zoo is still closed and cordoned off as a crime scene while police investigate how Tatiana was able to escape a grotto surrounded by a 15-foot moat and 12-foot-5-inch wall (much shorter than the 18 feet the zoo initially reported) before mauling Sousa directly in front of the enclosure and then attacking the brothers 300 yards away at a zoo café.
Tatiana was the same tiger who mauled a trainer's arm during a feeding demonstration just before Christmas last year.
The death of the young man is the heart of the tragedy, and whether or not he or his friends taunted the animal or were in some way responsible for her escape (zoo director Manuel Mollinedo has implied as much, while San Francisco Police Sgt. Neville Gittens disputes it), the zoo should remain shut down until it can get its act together. Arguments about culpability and the future of the zoo are dominating the fallout discussion of the incident, and it's likely that Mollinedo's job is on the line. No surprise, then, that he seems almost anxious to blame the victims.
But the part of the tragedy that hasn't been discussed much is the loss of the tiger. The police were no doubt in the right to shoot. As big-cat expert Ronald Tilson, who oversees the tiger species-survival plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Once the animal is out of its primary enclosure, it's pretty much shoot to kill…. You don't have a discussion—you kill it. A tranquilizer gun would take too long and you might miss.”
And in another Chronicle story on the incident, it was reported that zoo authorities did have powerful tranquilizer guns that could have been used, but police were on the scene first—perhaps another indication of the zoo being poorly prepared for an emergency?
Seems to me you could miss with a real gun as easily as a tranquilizer, but I'm not going to argue with a “big-cat expert.”
If you check out the last five years of maulings of humans by captive animals in the U.S., you'll see that the animals usually died at the hands of the species whose errors ironically made their escapes and attacks possible.
A couple cases in point:
Sept. 10, 2005: Three chimpanzees from a zoo in Nebraska were shot and killed after escaping their enclosure. A padlock on the cage was not completely closed after being cleaned.
Feb. 24, 2007: A 140-pound jaguar named Jorge fatally mauled a keeper at the Denver Zoo before being shot and killed. Zoo officials said later that another keeper had violated the rules by opening the door to the animal's cage.But there is one fascinating exception:
Sept. 28, 2003: A 300-pound gorilla named Little Joe escaped from its enclosure at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, attacking a 2-year-old girl and a teenage zoo employee before being tranquilized. It was the second time in two months that the animal had escaped.
Like Tatiana, Little Joe had escaped before, and like Tatiana, Little Joe had attacked humans. It's hard to imagine that a gorilla on the loose is any less of a threat than a tiger. Boston Zoo authorities were apparently on the scene with tranquilizers in time to prevent the need to end the gorilla's life.
Again, I'm not criticizing the killing of the tiger; I'm just saying that there are circumstances under which stopping an escaped animal without killing it is possible. Perhaps if it had been zoo authorities confronting Tatiana rather than San Francisco police—but who can say for sure?
And why all this concern for the tiger? Some have asked whether Tatiana should've been put down after last year when it injured the keeper. Tilson says absolutely not. “She was everything that a tiger is supposed to be,” he said, adding, “She was essentially shot and killed for being a tiger.”
I'm surprised the case needs to be made. The tiger is a hunter that kills and eats mammals. This is its nature, and it shouldn't be made out to be a villain for doing what it does naturally.
But beyond defending Tatiana for behaving like a tiger, it's important to recognize the rarity of Siberians. There are about 150 in captivity and probably fewer than 400 in the wild. The loss of a single individual from the population of this majestic vanishing species is major.
More than any other reaction to the story, we must, of course sympathize with the suffering of the Sousa family over the loss of their son. “I wish I was sleeping and this was just a bad dream, but it's not,” the victim's mother, Marilza Sousa, told The Associated Press at her San Jose home. She and her husband were reportedly angered at being notified of their son's death by the coroner's office and not the police or zoo officials. But it's surely no solace to the family that the oblivious tiger that killed their son also died.
We can also mourn the loss of Tatiana, whose tragic fate is a microcosm of the fate of her entire species. Killed by humans for killing humans because humans made it possible for her to kill them, Tatiana was a victim, too. Perhaps she was a victim of shoddy zoo management; or of teenage harassment; or of nervous, excessive force; or all three. At any rate, it wasn't murder, and she didn't deserve the death penalty. I'll concede that there might have been no better option. And isn't that why zoos exist at all? We've left most non-human species with no better option. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.