But zoos own tigers, don't they? We all had our tiger-consciousness raised following the Christmas Day tragedy at the San Francisco Zoo, when a tiger killed a man and was, herself, killed in return. People began to point fingers, noting that the tiger had acted out before, or that perhaps the young man and his friends were taunting the tiger. But one thing is known for sure: If there were no such thing as zoos, the man would still be alive. As would a magnificent tiger.
What a thrill it must have been to visit a zoo a century ago to see the animals only otherwise known through descriptions or drawings. Amazing creatures from Africa and Asia - elephants, giraffes, tigers, lions, hippos and more. Then - perhaps - zoos had a place in our world. But today, with all these creatures at our fingertips through excellent photos and films, is there really a need to keep animals displayed in cages? And what about animal acts such as Siegfried & Roy? It's wonderful that they have worked to preserve the rare Snow White Tiger, but what were the animals doing on a stage in Vegas, a place designed to discombobulate even humans?
I had a chance to play with some tiger cubs when I was living in Bangkok a few years back. I was writing a story about a woman who had an animal sanctuary in her back yard, mostly for gibbons that had been rescued from irresponsible owners, often outdoor bars. If they were young or severely traumatized, she often put a diaper on them and let them indoors. My story focused on six baby orangutans that were being smuggled through Thailand en route from Indonesia to Belgrade. Airport officials were suspicious that the crates seemed too heavy for the birds they allegedly held, so they investigated and found the little orangutans each curled in his own little compartment. By the time I saw them they were swinging happily on a gym set in the woman's yard, and they were quite affectionate, one wrapping his long arms around my neck as I held him like a baby. He had a wonderful, sweet smell.
The woman also was temporarily giving shelter to three tiger cubs, playful little things that were also intercepted being passed illegally through Bangkok on their way to a zoo. They were little but even so I didn't get too close - their nails were long and their teeth looked sharp. I told my family about the tiger cubs and we made plans to return, but unfortunately we didn't go back until a month later. By then - guess what! - the tigers had grown, and so had their nails and their teeth. They were still playful as kittens but a tiger bite is a tiger bite whether it's delivered mischievously or because the tiger thinks you're a snack.
My daughter and I steered clear of the tigers; she even got into an empty monkey enclosure for protection. But my husband Jim bent down to play with them and ended up on the ground wrestling. The tiger cubs loved their jungle Jim. They were all over him, rolling on the ground, jumping and feinting, and trying to hold him with their paws. They began to bite harder and harder so Jim called it quits. At this point, his arms were all bloody and his shirt was lashed in several places. At home, we put antiseptic on the scratches and threw out the shirt. Perhaps there had been a danger there but nothing bad happened. And now he has the wonderful memory of wrestling with baby tigers, motherless, homeless cubs, but beautiful wild creatures nonetheless.
And that's the glory of housecats. They slink, they pause, they pounce. They are like little tigers. But they are domesticated. They need us - and we need them. And they don't need to be behind bars.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.