By Steve Fagin
A mauling by an escaped jaguar the other day is the latest, sad episode in a too-often-repeated series of ill-fated, cross-species encounters that usually end badly for humans and almost always worse for wild animals.
After this incident in the Central American nation of Belize both two-legged and four-legged critters were carted away feet first, a two-part tragedy that could have been averted if people only learned from past experience that large predators belong in their native habitat, never in cages.
It all began when a 4-year-old, 130-pound jaguar male jaguar, kept in captivity by filmmakers Richard and Carol Foster – who produced wildlife documentaries for National Geographic – escaped after winds from Hurricane Richard toppled a tree onto his cage.
The large cat, named Max, then attacked a dog owned by the Fosters' U.S.-born neighbor, Bruce Cullerton, and when Cullerton tried to save his pet the jaguar pounced, dragged him into the bushes and bit him savagely on the arms and neck.
After authorities found Cullerton's mangled body they baited a steel-mesh trap, re-captured the jaguar and killed it – the circle of life, wild-animal-in-captivity style.
I've never been a huge fan of wildlife documentaries since I always suspected filmmakers used captive animals for much of their footage, and the Fosters' episode would seem to confirm my suspicion.
According to published reports the Fosters were shocked – shocked! – by the attack since Max never showed any violent tendencies. Never mind that jaguars are the largest and most ferocious felines in the Western Hemisphere, stalking prey and breaking skull bones between their powerful jaws.
They obtained the jaguar two years ago from the owner of a resort who faced numerous complaints from visitors (I can't imagine why – after all, what is more enjoyable than watching a dangerous animal pacing back and forth in a cage?)
If you think these sorts of things happen only in foreign countries, you are overlooking numerous attacks in the good old U.S. of A. Last year a jaguar at Baltimore's Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo pounced on and critically injured an animal care worker; in 2007 one mauled a keeper at the Denver Zoo.
These incidents were relatively tame compared to other wild-animal attacks. We here in the Nutmeg State are all too familiar with the horrific episode involving Travis the chimp, who escaped from his enclosure in a Stamford home, went berserk and ripped off the hands, eyelids and nose of a woman called by the owner to help capture the animal.
Police finally shot poor Travis, and the victim, Charla Nash, was so badly mutilated a traumatized police officer who responded has had to undergo counseling. Nash, who has had numerous surgeries, sued the owner, Sandra Herold, and the state for allowing Herold to keep the animal. Herold died in May, so Nash would have to collect any damages from her estate.
I thought of Travis, Nash and Herold a few weeks ago when I read about a 300-pound chimpanzee named Sue that ran amok in Kansas City, racing through the neighborhood, pounding on doors, opening car doors, dragging a trash bin down a street and even smashing the windshield on a police cruiser. Luckily, nobody's face got torn off so the cops didn't have to shoot her. It was treated as just another lighthearted story with a happy ending to wrap up the evening newscast.
The brutal Stamford incident, though, has gained the dubious distinction of ranking Number 2 on Time magazine's top 10 list of animal attacks on humans. In case you're keeping score, here's the rest:
No. 10: San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein (then husband of actress Sharon Stone) is forced to have foot surgery after being bitten by a venomous Komodo dragon during a private tour of the Los Angeles Zoo in 2001.
No. 9: A 600-lb. white Bengal tiger attacks Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy during their show at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 2002.
No. 8: A 12-year-old boy named Brian Jeffrey Griffin is killed when an alligator pulls him under the water as he swam with friends in Florida's Dead River in June 2003.
No. 7: Bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend are killed and partially eaten by coastal grizzlies in 2003 after living among them at Katmai National Park in Alaska for about 13 seasons. Treadwell was later the subject of the documentary film "Grizzly Man."
"Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin died after being fatally pierced in the chest by a stingray barb while filming in Australia's Great Barrier Reef in 2006.
No. 5: A trainer is killed and more than 20 spectators injured after an elephant goes on a rampage at a ceremonial festival in the south Indian state of Kerala in 2007.
No.4: Tatiana, a 4-year-old Siberian tiger, escapes from its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and kills one teen and injures two others on Christmas afternoon in 2007.
No. 3: Rocky, a 5-year-old grizzly trained to wrestle with experienced handlers, bites Stephan Miller in the neck in 2008 during the filming of a promotional video in Big Bear Lake, Calif., killing him instantly.
No. 2: The Travis rampage.
No. 1: A 12,300-lb. killer whale named Tilikum fatally attacks his 40-year-old SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, dragging her underwater during a live performance last February.
You may have noticed, as I did, that in all but one of those incidents (the alligator attack on the 12-year-old swimmer) the human victims were not exactly innocent.
The animal victims, though, always are.