Late December, 2007: On one side of the world, a female Siberian tiger somehow escapes her zoo enclosure and attacks three young men, killing one. Some 6,000 miles away on the other, a female Siberian tiger being held in a Beijing zoo is found skinned, beheaded, and de-limbed, most likely by poachers looking to sell her parts on the black market. As many already know, the former happened over Christmas Day at the San Francisco Zoo, during which the tiger in question, a 4-year-old named Tatiana, was shot and killed. The latter occurred the week before. Two separate situations, to be sure, but there were some interesting differences: In California, the soul-searching and post-mortems began in earnest, with questions as to why and how Tatiana escaped and attacked. (There are reports that the three young men may have taunted Tatiana before she attacked.) In China, officials simply (and quickly) closed the zoo.
In closing the zoo, do the Chinese know something we don't? (Says Moe: "Um, yes, that any excuse is a good one if it helps you clear away more land for the upcoming Genocide Olympics!"). But what they did brings up an important point: Is there a compelling reason for zoos to even exist? (And don't get me started on circuses.) Any future human or alien civilization stumbling upon the relics of our contemporary society would find a sorry, schizophrenic situation: A world that both fetishizes animals — Polar bear pajamas! Animal Planet! Four-hundred-dollar Louis Vuitton dog collars! — and is complicit in their forced captivity, unyielding agony and politically-sanctioned dominion. (Apparently, to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate you must also murder creatures on-camera.)
In my mind at least, the question is not how or why Tatiana the tiger killed one and wounded two others, it's how or why we got to a place where animals like her are held captive for the amusement of others. It's why we even fucking question the "uglier" impulse(s) of wild animals like tigers in the first place. (55 percent of voters on CNN's website believe Tatiana should have been tranquilized, not shot and killed. Plus, as any cat owner knows, even human-friendly felines retain a feral aspect that is impossible to domesticate away.)
Zoos always created a profound sense of unease in me, even as a child, but the last straw, so to speak, came in 2001, when I visited New York's Bronx Zoo with a close friend and his young son for its annual, Christmas-themed "Holiday Lights" extravaganza. Bundled up in down jackets and woolly hats and gloves, we shuffled around the grounds, gawking at and chattering over the colored lights, the squawking sea lions, the playful monkeys. At the elephant exhibit, however, the three of us quickly grew quiet: Three of the zoo's pachyderms stood motionless within a cavernous enclosure, their eyes vacant, as if signaling some sort of deep and profound depression even the most pharmaceutically-medicated of us could not fully comprehend. The sheer absurdity and cruelty of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks: A trio of the world's most glorious creatures held captive in a crude, concrete enclosure many oceans away from where they belonged. (It was no surprise when, a few years later, one of the zoo's elephants died a premature death and zoo directors announced that the elephant exhibit would be closed.) We realized that we were the real animals, and left the zoo immediately afterwards, never to return.
Related: All Too Often, Not So Fun: Zoos And Animal Exhibits [Humane Society of the United States]
Man Dead In Circus Elephant Enclosure [Sydney Morning Herald]
Dominion: The Power Of Man, The Suffering Of Animals, And The Call To Mercy
An Elephant Crackup? [NY Times]
Bronx Zoo Plans To End Elephant Exhibit [NY Times]
The Ivory War [60 Minutes/CBS News]
Blake's 'Tyger' [Harpers]
Tiger Study [World Wildlife Fund]