tiger in a cage

When a tiger mauled a handler at Australia Zoo this week, people were surprised and outraged. But tigers are apex predators and have few natural enemies, other than man — or woman. The Australia Zoo attack was just the latest in a long list of such incidents around the world — why are we so surprised when captive creatures act like, well, wild animals?

Keeping tigers in zoo cages gives people the warped idea that these animals are little more than cuddly kitties. But captivity does not extinguish all the genetic drives that tigers are meant to follow. Attacks by captive big cats on people — which occur with staggering regularity — illustrate the profound level of stress, anxiety and agitation these animals experience every day of their lives. Zoos cannot tame tigers, and captivity is a living hell for them. In captivity, they cannot engage in any of the activities that give their lives meaning. Is it any wonder that tigers seize opportunities to make their frustration and rage known?

No animal can thrive in such an artificial and stressful environment. The movie Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, an orca torn from his family in the wild and imprisoned in a concrete bathtub at SeaWorld, where he made headlines after killing a trainer in 2010, after 30 years of captivity. The cynicism that condemns such magnificent animals to a life of misery is only matched by the greed evident in ordering employees to “perform” with clearly dangerous predators.

Perhaps Hugh Lofting, author of the iconic The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, said it best: “If I had my way … there wouldn’t be a single lion or tiger in captivity anywhere in the world. They never take to it. They’re never happy. They never settle down. They are always thinking of the big countries they have left behind … what are they given … a bare cage with iron bars; an ugly piece of dead meat thrust to them once a day, and a crowd of fools to come and stare at them with open mouths!”

Tigers are in trouble in the wild, but why would anyone take their plight seriously when they see them performing in silly shows, posing for photos and jammed into zoo cages? These displays give the public the idea — overtly or not — that tigers are doing just fine. Unless habitat protection is taken seriously, coupled with aggressive action to stop poaching and canned hunting, all the zoos in the world won’t save this species.

Big cats living their lives on the African plains also need protection. “Trophy” (oh, what a ghastly term) killer Melissa Bachman gleefully posed with a menagerie of her victims recently, including a gorgeous adult male lion. Her ear-to-ear smile incited rage around the world from people who cannot comprehend how anyone could feel joy, much less pride, from deliberately snuffing out a life. But that’s little consolation to the dead lion and other animals living in constant danger of being blasted to bits with scopes, infrared sights and high-calibre weaponry.

Why can’t we just leave animals alone? Well into the 21st century, when presumably we’ve learned something about being civilised, why do we think we have the right to force animals to live behind bars for our fleeting diversion? What arrogance allows us to believe that we can go into their homes, stalk and kill them, and then brag about it by posing next to their lifeless bodies? Humans don’t own the planet, but we certainly act like we do.

More and more people have come to recognize that today’s zoos are little different from the days when circuses caged albino and hunchback human beings alongside pumas and primates for the public’s amusement. Both should be equally unthinkable today.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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