S.F. Zoo's Tatiana acted her part as alpha predator, experts say
Thursday, December 27, 2007
"She was everything that a tiger is supposed to be," said big-cat expert Ronald Tilson. "She was essentially shot and killed for being a tiger."
Tilson was speaking about Tatiana, the 4-year-old Siberian who fatally attacked one zoo visitor and injured two others at the San Francisco Zoo late Christmas afternoon before police officers gunned her down.
A year ago, she mauled her keeper, devouring the flesh from her arm. Should Tatiana have been put down at that time?
"There was no reason whatsoever," said 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.
Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist with the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas, agreed that Tatiana posed no greater danger than she had before Dec. 22, 2006 - when she reached under the bars of her cage and seized the arms of zoo employee Lori Komejan as dozens of people watched.
"We have 60 cats here," Dorfman said. "Any one of them would have done the same thing. But they would forget about it 15 minutes later. They don't dwell on things. The only thing they dwell on is if someone mistreated them."
Manuel Mollinedo, executive director of the San Francisco Zoo, said, "There was never any consideration for putting her down - the tiger was acting like a normal tiger."
Tatiana was born in the Denver Zoo on June 27, 2003, and donated to San Francisco in December 2005 to mate with a male named Tony.
Tilson, who is responsible for the 147 Siberians, or Amurs, that live in more than 60 AZA-accredited zoos in North America, said, "I'm the one who made the recommendation for her to be born in Denver. I'm the one who made a recommendation to send her to San Francisco. I feel personally involved with all of this. To me, it's very disconcerting and very upsetting."
Tilson said he can't recall a tiger ever getting out of its enclosure and killing a zoo visitor. He added that Tatiana's behavior, once she escaped, was very much in keeping with her species.
"She was an alpha predator in her environment," he said. "She was killing mammals and eating meat."
He said any loose zoo animal would want to return to its habitat and would become upset, disoriented, frightened - and potentially dangerous.
"Once the animal is out of its primary enclosure, it's pretty much shoot to kill," Tilson said. "You don't have a discussion - you kill it. A tranquilizer gun would take too long and you might miss."
Dorfman described the Christmas carnage as extraordinarily rare.
"Anything they perceive as a danger they're going to strike at," he said. "That's their instinct. If everyone would stand perfectly still and not make any movement, the cat wouldn't hurt anybody."
Tilson said the AZA's accreditation committee will look at how the big cats are housed at the San Francisco Zoo.
One of those primarily involved in writing husbandry standards for exhibits, Tilson said, "We were extremely conservative. We added extra feet up and deep."
It was recommended that a tiger moat should be a minimum of 7 meters (almost 23 feet) wide at the top and a minimum of 5 meters high (16.4 feet) on the visitors' side, with a fence at least 5 meters high.
San Francisco Zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said the moat is 25 to 30 feet wide, with a wall 13 1/2 to 14 feet high, from the bottom of the moat to the top. The fence is 3 to 4 feet high.
Marian Roth-Cramer recalled the day she and her son, who was 4 or 5, visited the tiger exhibit in 1997.
"My son had his hands on the metal bar," said the San Francisco woman, a children's dance and family programs coordinator at a branch of the YMCA. "All of a sudden, I saw the tiger leap over the moat, put a paw on the dirt (and hang on). I screamed and grabbed my son."
The animal slid away. She turned to a zookeeper and asked if he'd seen what she had. His reply: "She always does that. She hates my guts."
She wrote a letter to David Anderson, the zoo director at the time, about the incident and canceled her membership. She said she never got a reply.
Mollinedo, who took over in early 2004, said that he asked staff members after Tuesday's attack whether any big cat had ever jumped the moat or escaped the grotto, and no one could recall anything like that happening.
For The Tiger
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