Big-cat experts say a determined tiger could get over 12 1/2-foot wall
Saturday, December 29, 2007
Big-cat experts say a fully grown tiger could very likely climb the 12 1/2-foot moat wall at the San Francisco Zoo, especially if there were little or no water in the moat.
"That height would be scalable," said Ronald Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo, who since 1987 has been overseeing the tiger species survival plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"A tiger cannot leap over something like that, but what it can do is stand up and with a little hop or jump, more than likely get its paws on the ledge," Tilson said. "That would not be much of a trick. And they are so powerful that they can scoot themselves up."
Authorities still don't know exactly how Tatiana, a 4-year-old Siberian tiger, escaped from her enclosure at the zoo on Christmas Day before fatally attacking one teenager and mauling two other young men.
But Tilson said the height of the wall protecting the public from the tigers "gives a reasonable explanation that the tiger got out from that spot." The recommended standard height for tiger enclosures is 16.4 feet.
It's not clear how far Tatiana could stretch her body when standing on her hind legs, but big-cat experts said it's not unusual for tigers to be able to stretch to 10 feet or more. Tigers can also hop from their hind legs as much as 3 or 4 feet in the air.
"I'm 6 feet tall, and when we have a tiger stand up, they tower over me," said Scott Lope, director of operations at Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary with more than 100 felines in Tampa, Fla. "They're easily able to stretch to 8 feet, and with a reach and an easy 4- or 5-foot jump, they've already spanned that distance.
"Nobody's measured exactly how far or how high they can jump," he said. "But this was a young, healthy animal. It could have jumped quite high, and if the wall was not a smooth surface it could get a clawhold."
Sources have told The Chronicle that Tatiana's rear claws showed signs of wear that could support the theory that the tiger used her rear legs to climb the wall. Authorities have not ruled out the possibility that one of the victims dangled an arm or leg over the wall and that Tatiana latched onto the limb to pull herself out. But big-cat experts said she wouldn't have needed that extra leverage to climb over the wall.
Water in the moat could keep a tiger from climbing a wall, but it would have to be deep enough that the tiger's paws couldn't touch the bottom, Tilson said. The moat in the San Francisco Zoo enclosure is dry, which tiger experts said is not uncommon in zoo exhibits.
Unlike domestic house cats, tigers like water and will wade or swim in it if they can, big-cat experts said.
While there's little doubt that a tiger could escape over a 12 1/2-foot wall, experts said that thousands of the animals are kept in enclosures protected by walls roughly the same height, and yet they never escape. It's clear, they said, that something provoked Tatiana to climb the wall.
"The problem is not necessarily a 12-foot wall. I know tigers around the world that are perfectly safe behind 10-foot or 12-foot walls," said Martine Colette, founder of the Wildlife WayStation refuge for wild and exotic animals in Southern California. "The problem is the stimulus. There had to have been a tremendous stimulus that made the tiger react the way she did. If the wall was 20 feet tall, she still would have made the attempt."
While zoo officials have said that they suspect the tiger may have been taunted, police have regularly said they have no proof of that.
For The Tiger
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