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Friday, December 28, 2007

Artificial Wildness is Poor Policy for Tiger Keepers!

I was saddened to hear over Christmas that 3 young men were victims of a Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo and that one had died as a result of his wounds. I would also like to express my condolences to the staff of the zoo who also lost Tatiana, a female Amur tiger in the incident. It is the policy of many AZA zoos to minimize contact between keepers and the big predators like tigers, but keepers do develop a strong affection for the creatures they care for.

It is natural, in the wake of an incident like this to look around at the smaller tiger refuges, zoos and animal theme parks and wonder just how safe visitors are there. We don’t like to think a simple outing at the zoo with our children can end with a tragedy like this.

“Captive is captive,” says Tiger Missing Link Foundation director, Brian Werner, “…and you cannot duplicate a wild setting in captivity with captive tigers, all captive tigers should be acclimated with people as this better ensures safety of the tigers and people.

At Tiger Creek and facilities like Jack Hannah's Columbus Zoo, the keepers work extensively with the cats to develop a relationship with the animals. This provides an extra layer of safety so that should a cat escape for some reason, it is far less likely to attack someone. Many AZA accredited facilities discourage keeper interaction with their tigers and lions on the theory that somehow it is better for the captive animal to remain in a "wild" state.

Jack Hannah, interviewed on Good Morning America argued against this policy saying, “Tigers you see in captivity today, are NOT taken out of the wild. Tigers are born and raised here in the states. Tigers are endangered. You see more AZA escapes and attacks as each year goes by due to human error, AZA zoos do not encourage any handling of their animals, this is where the fault lies. If there was human interaction then maybe the outcome would have been different.

As we have seen, if a "wild" tiger does escape its pen, its instincts are going to be to find prey- which is exactly what happened in San Francisco. In this case, there may have been some taunting of the animal by the victims and if this proves to be the case, it only accentuates the need for adding every layer of additional security possible to our animal exhibits.

“While tigers are always wild animals,” says Brian Werner, “One advantage that we have here at Tiger Creek is that our animals are conditioned and have what we refer to as ‘cage manners’. Basically our tigers are imprinted or acclimated to people through various types of training and teaching methods. The tigers at Tiger Creek could still be dangerous just not typically as aggressive as the zoo cats. The zoos like to keep their tigers in their "wild state". They actually pride themselves on this fact. At Tiger Creek we know that this zoo approach makes a tiger much more aggressive and more stressed and even scared of people, which in turn could more easily lead to an adverse situation if confronted without barriers.

“A secondary factor is that some of our best-trained and experienced staffers here have been in with a tiger and know how to work with the cats and not against them. Zoo staff has zero experience at that level which in turn could make for an even more nervous situation if confronted head on with a tiger. It's just as important that staff be trained and acclimated to tigers as it is for the tigers themselves. Nonetheless despite all of what we do we do not mean to undermine that in general tigers are and can be dangerous.”

Maintaining a 'wild' tiger in captivity only makes the animal more angry, unhappy and likely to hurt someone. A hand-raised tiger that knows and has genuine affection for its keepers, that lives in an environment with plenty of mental stimulus and opportunities to play is unlikely to summon up the sort of rage that Tatiana (the SF tiger) exhibited in breaking out of what should have been a safe area. Had keepers paid more attention to her and to making her content and happy, the incident might never have happened. At least, someone should have kept a better eye on visitors to the tiger viewing areas.

At Tiger Creek, we escort visitors around the facility and even when they are allowed to “look around” on their own, there is never a staff member far from the party to prevent young people from taunting the cats or doing foolish things that could get them hurt. We keep double and triple barriers between the cats and visitors and maintain two additional safety barriers – Our staff and the relationship they have with the cats.

Tiger Creek staff maintains a close watch on visitors at all time, eliminating the chance of a visitor causing a tiger to become agitated as apparently happened in San Francisco. There is also a strong interactive relationship between tigers and the keepers. Because Tiger Creek’s cats are either hand-raised or have a great deal of human interaction during rehabilitation, our keepers know their personalities. Problem or spooky tigers are kept farther from the public behind more barriers where visitors can’t disturb them. They are rotated to exercise yards and given play toys. Staff do target training to make it easier to provide care to the animals without having to risk getting in the cages with them. Access to the animals’ living spaces is limited to senior keepers who know their business and take no chances. A content, happy tiger is a lot less likely to jump over a wall and attack a visitor.

Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge is working on building a new program at the refuge to train zookeepers and wildlife professionals in how to implement this multi-layered captive management approach that layers facility, maintenance, training and relationship building into an integrated safety system with greater redundancy built into it. As the number of tigers and other large cats in captivity inevitably increases, it is important that we thoroughly train a new generation of captive managers and keepers.

If you’d like to be a part of creating that training program and improving the safety of our zoos, refuges and wildlife parks, contact me at (903) 714-2353 or by e-mail at to find out what you can do to help us prepare provide a safe home for our tigers and a safe place for our children to watch and learn about them. You can also visit us at and to find out more about what we do at Tiger Missing Link Foundation.

There are just over 320 tigers in AZA accredited zoos in the US. There are more than 3,000 in refuges, animal theme parks and smaller zoos. The majority of attacks, however have occurred in AZA zoos and often in large ones like San Francisco, San Antonio and Denver, while smaller refuges like Tiger Creek and zoos like Tyler’s Caldwell zoo, which shares the Tiger Creek philosophy of hand-raising captive cats, have had few major incidents. Tiger Creek has had no serious injury or incident on its grounds or during the many sponsored rescues it has conducted since it opened 12 years ago. Tiger Creek manages nearly 40 cats in its facility with up to 9 intern/trainees on staff at a time. The Refuge's safety policies have worked there as they have in hundreds of other refuges and small zoos and I believe it is because these folks take a practical approach to captive management that recognizes that a happy cat is a safer cat. That's one more safety layer that AZA should consider recommending to its associated zoos.

Finally, we're already hearing from the left-wing Animal Rights community declaring we should hold no animals in captivity EVER and using this incident to support their position. Ironically, it's the zoo's misguided attempts to placate the AR people that I believe has led to the too-common policy of keeping captive animals in a supposedly pristine "wild" state. Like Brian said, "Captive is captive." It's not safe or responsible to deliberately cultivate large captive predators "wild nature". The Environmentalist newspaper, 'Daily Green' calls San Francisco Zoo's policies "enlightened". If so, is there a correlation between enlightenment and poor safety. This is the second time Tatiana has attacked a human.

How many more tigers and humans need to die before someone rejects this politically correct, but wrong-headed nonsense. There's not enough room in the wild to maintain a genetically healthy tiger population or insure the safety of humans living in Southeast Asia. Sending all tigers back to the wild as The Daily Green proposes, merely insures their extinction. It would be nice to do for all animals to live in the wild, but we can't right now unless we're willing to accept their extinction. Self-righteous pressure from the greenies to keep animals in some idealized "natural state" has only promoted half-measures by zookeepers and compromises public safety.

Just one man's opinion


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