A Tiger Goes on a Rampage: Can It Happen Here?
December 27, 2007
By KEN BELSON
New Yorkers have plenty of reasons to be on edge when walking the streets, from armed thugs to reckless taxi drivers to aggressive hawkers.
Tigers, it is safe to say, would not be on the list. And for good cause: They are kept in zoos and are supposed to be kept safely away from people.
Except that what happened in San Francisco has raised the question of urban tigers.
Authorities there are still trying to determine how a tiger in the San Francisco Zoo got out of its pen and killed one person and seriously injured two others on Tuesday evening. The tiger, a 300-pound Siberian named Tatiana, was shot and killed by the police.
Still, in the New York area, plenty of zoogoers seemed unperturbed by the dreadful and extremely unusual episode. At Tiger Mountain in the Bronx Zoo, where seven Siberian tigers are kept, hundreds of visitors Wednesday paraded past huge windows that look into a wooded, hilly area where two of the tigers, Taurus and Norma, were roaming.
"I would be a lot more worried about my neighbors having all sorts of weird animals, or even dogs that their owners don't control," said Kate Szur, 39, who was visiting from Brooklyn with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. "I think the tigers escaping is a very rare occurrence."
Indeed, they do seem to be rare, according to zookeepers and others who handle wild animals for a living. These professionals said tigers, even those that have lived in captivity all their lives, always act on instinct, particularly if they wander outside their territory, or safe zone.
"Tigers are a combination of strong instincts and strong emotions and no inhibition," said Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, Tex., 30 miles north of Fort Worth. "Once this cat gets out, it's immediately in its instinctual mode."
Mr. Dorfman and others said accredited zoos had enough security measures in place to ensure that the only way a tiger was likely to escape was through human error, like a door left unlocked.
Experts say it is rare for an animal to escape from a professionally maintained facility in New York, but New Yorkers have been known to keep exotic pets, including boa constrictors.
At the Bronx Zoo, the tigers' habitat is surrounded by a 20-foot-high chain-link fence with a 5-foot overhang that curls inward at the top. An electrified "hot wire" runs along the inside of the fence. The wire blends into the landscape, but it carries enough electricity to stun the tigers, so they have learned to steer clear of it, zookeepers say.
There are also metal rings around tree trunks to keep the tigers from scaling the trees and jumping over the fence.
Still, many of the children passing the window and looking into the tigers' territory screamed with fear when they first saw them. They weigh as much as 650 pounds and are strong enough to crush their prey's vertebrae in one bite.
Some adults were not taking chances. Sgt. Regan Kelly, a police officer from Mamaroneck who was visiting with his wife, joked that he was loaded for bear.
"I made sure I was armed with extra ammo today," he said, nodding to his gun beneath his jacket. "And here everyone is training for terrorists."
While tigers kept in zoos are typically well secured, there are other settings in which the animals have been a menace, or worse. In October 2003, Roy Horn of the magic and tiger-training team of Siegfried and Roy was mauled by a 400-pound white tiger during a show in Las Vegas. Mr. Horn had worked with the tiger for years, but is still undergoing rehabilitation and walks with a cane.
Just a day after the attack on Mr. Horn, New Yorkers had their own walk on the wild side when a 400-pound Bengal tiger and a five-foot-long caiman were discovered in an apartment in Harlem.
The police were alerted after the owner of the apartment, Antoine Yates, called to say he had been bitten by a pit bull. When they arrived, officers talked to neighbors who complained about large amounts of urine and a strong smell coming from the apartment.
To subdue the tiger, a police sniper rappelled down the side of the building and, as the tiger roared in the background, fired tranquilizer darts through an open fifth-floor window.
Keeping tigers in such confined spaces might be rare, and even cruel, but plenty of Americans feel comfortable keeping these animals in their backyards. Several years ago, there were more tigers in private hands in Texas than in all the nation's accredited zoos, according to Palmer Krantz III, the chairman of the board at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"It would be highly irresponsible for some individual to maintain a large exotic animal as a pet," said Mr. Krantz, who is also the executive director of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C. "You not only have to know what you are doing, but you also need the facilities for them."
In Wantage, N.J., Space Farms Zoo and Museum keeps its two Bengal tigers, Kimber and Khyber, behind a 10-foot-high heavy-gauge chain-link fence, and a 4-foot fence keeps onlookers from getting too close.
There are two sections in the tigers' pen and a lock between them, so when zookeepers clean one side, the tigers are locked on the opposite side. Workers check the pen daily, and the state's Division of Wildlife checks the zoo annually.
The security is not just about meeting regulatory requirements, said Parker Space, the park's owner.
"I figure it's easier to keep an eye on them than it is to chase them," he said. "You can train a wild animal, but you can never tame them."
Nate Schweber contributed reporting from Wantage, N.J., and Mathew R. Warren from the Bronx.
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