Recent years have seen wild tiger populations dwindle to just over 3,000 internationally, while captive populations have soared to 5,000 in the US alone, with another 4,500 in China. Yet, despite how sexy a tiger selfie can look on Tinder, these animals kill people in astonishing numbers.
New Zealand was reminded of this on Sunday when a zookeeper named Samantha Kudeweh was mauled by a male Sumatran tiger at the Hamilton Zoo. Samantha held a senior position as zoo curator and was no rookie, yet this wasn't the zoo's first tiger issue.
In 2013 another keeper walked approximately 30 feet into an enclosure she thought was empty before realizing she was accompanied by a five-year-old female. According to reports, a door had been left open while her pen was being cleaned, allowing the cat to get back in. The zookeeper fled unscathed.
These aren't issues isolated to the city of Hamilton. Sunday's tragedy came only days after a Sumatran tiger killed a zookeeper in Poland, which itself came months after three zookeepers were killed by escaping animals, including tigers, in Georgia. One of the most respected pieces of feline literature, Tigers of the World, estimates that 373,000 people were killed by tigers between 1800 and 2009.
"These are not pets" says Hans Kriek, Executive Director of SAFE, New Zealand's leading animal advocacy organization. "You can't make them into pets. These are wild animals designed to kill and they're always dangerous."
Hans acknowledges that zoo managers know this, but deaths are frequent due to human error. There isn't a set mandate on safely managing and exhibiting big cats, but most Western zoos fashion safety procedures around a principle of no-contact. "I believe this was the case with Hamilton," says Hans, "but mistakes are made when people working with the animals on a daily basis become blasé and lose attention."
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Again, this was the case in 2009 at a zoo just a few hours north of Hamilton called the Zion Lion Park. There, a white tiger named Abu attacked and killed his handler, Dalu Mncube, while the man was cleaning Abu's enclosure. For some reason the 26-year-old didn't secure the animal first, and despite a colleague's attempts to fight off Abu—first with a stick and then with a fire extinguisher—Abu crushed the man's head between his jaws. A subsequent inquest heard the tragedy was the result of poor training and lax safety procedures. In that case, a string of near-misses in the months prior should have signaled a red flag, and senior managers admitted handlers should have been equipped with tasers.
Thankfully, rationality prevails after most attacks and tigers are infrequently blamed. Hamilton Zoo, for example, has announced they won't put Oz down. As Hamilton City councilor Lance Vervoort said in a statement, "Although there is an inherent risk for zoo professionals who manage big cats like Oz, there is no wider ongoing risk. There is no reason for us to put Oz down."
There are a few theories on why tigers so freely attack zookeepers, but most hinge on instinct. "Captivity causes boredom and unpredictable behavior in big cats," explains Hans. "They lose some of their fear of people because they're being fed but they're still wild animals that instinctively kill so it's a deadly mix."
He claims it's not because they're underfed or even that they hold a particular animosity towards handlers. To Hans, attacks are much more a product of boredom. "They're just responding to movement, like a game of cat and mouse, it's instinctive."
Zoos are, however, a well-monitored and well-resourced sector of exotic animal ownership. Most captive tigers are not under the care of zoo professionals, but are kept in private collections. Of the 5,000 captive tigers in the US, it's estimated that only around six percent live in zoos, leaving most in backyards, sideshows, truck stops, and private breeding facilities.
The problems surrounding this arrangement were highlighted in 2011 when a man named Terry Thompson released his collection of tigers, lions, and bears into Zanesville, Ohio, before committing suicide. The animals ran wild through the town until authorities stepped in, shooting 49 of them dead, including ten of Thompson's 18 tigers. At the time of his suicide, the man was on parole for weapons charges and was apparently in no mental state to run a zoo.
As Kudeweh's death on Sunday makes clear, tigers don't care if humans think they're cute. Even when taken out of the wild, tigers are wild animals.
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