I passed by Tatiana at sunrise, once a week, and each time her eyes followed me hungrily. She stared at me with a regal scowl as I walked from one end of her enclosure to the other. Every week, only her head would turn, tracking me, probably the first person she’d seen that dawn, and each time I fought a primal urge to run. The moat around her enclosure seemed impossibly easy to jump.
“You’re being silly,” I told myself. “They know how to build tiger pens.” All the same, I walked on the other side of the path. Like that would help.
For a few months this spring, I went to the San Francisco Zoo every Sunday morning at sunrise to do volunteer work. After parking in the staff lot, I walked past the tiger enclosure and then on to that same cafe where the escaped Tatiana the tiger attacked three zoo visitors yesterday. I shudder to realize that she and I took the same route: past some antelopes and a warthog, arriving near the bears.
I’ve worked with wild animals and I’m not prone to romanticize the experience. That same winter, when Tatiana mauled a keeper inside the lion house, I wrote it off to a combination of human error and a dated facility — the indoor cat areas look like something out of the bad parts of Curious George: iron cages divided by enormous barred gates operated by levers, tigers and lions lounging about in spaces smaller than my living room. It’s horrifying but certainly not surprising, I thought, that a tiger in a box would lash out if given the chance.
I like zoos, and I take my daughter to the San Francisco Zoo all the time. But we don’t go to the lion house. Prairie dogs and petting zoo goats are great, but it stretches the boundaries of respect to keep large cats in such small spaces. Proponents will argue that with only 600 of these animals left in the wild, we need captive programs to maintain the species. They’ll find their case damaged by the fact that, as the San Francisco zoo has done, you name one of them “Tony” — as in Tony the Tiger, breakfast cereal shill. That’s not a sign of a respectful captive breeding program — it’s cartoonish and shameful.
That’s not why I’m up at 6:00 a.m., though. I can’t sleep because a man is dead and two were injured sitting at a plastic table that I’ve certainly used myself. They are all victims to the arrogance of the San Francisco zoo, a place I nevertheless love for all it has done right. For its interactive barnyard and care of injured birds, for its constant improvements to animal enclosures and terrific teachers… it’s not a bad zoo, really.
For all my inner debate about animal ethics, the image that revisited me all night was that my daughter and I have walked those paths dozens of times, we have sat at that same cafe which today is no doubt bloody and surreal. What if Tatiana had chosen one of those days to escape? Would I have known where to run or been fast enough? Could I have kept my baby safe?
My sleep will return to normal, I’m confident, as fear of tigers reassumes its proper place among all my parent’s fears: allergies, car crashes, strangers at the playground. But in the meantime, if I were to search for a symbol of how powerless I feel in the face of the world — how powerless, in the end, to protect my family and myself — I could hardly have arrived at a better metaphor than Tatiana, the unfortunate, murderous tiger.