New Mexico's Pet ResourceWINTER 2004



by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

This issue’s topic is a compilation of the questions regarding the recent incidents of wild animals in captivity injuring humans. Of concern to people are whether these animals are especially vicious and whether they should be put down.

In the news recently have been several reports of exotic animals in captivity attacking humans. Among these are a gorilla from a Boston zoo, the white tiger from the Siegfried and Roy Las Vegas act, and a tiger kept in a Manhattan apartment. These three animals were born in captivity and have been in close proximity to humans for their entire lives. Although they were captive born, they are not domesticated. Domestic animals have been bred by humans over many generations to conform to certain standards. Our companion dogs and cats have been domesticated from wild ancestors. Through the process of domestication, many of the traits, which would make their wild counterparts too dangerous or unpredictable to live in a captive environment, have been bred out of the species. Just because a wild animal has been human-raised, tamed or taught tricks, does not mean that it has been domesticated.

Another factor is that these animals are inherently dangerous by virtue of their size and strength. Even if a tiger has a life long relationship with a caretaker, the potential for severe injury is there at times of play or protection of the caretaker. If Roy’s tiger did attempt to rescue Roy or drag him from a perceived threat as has been suggested, the unrestrained strength of the tiger’s jaws on Roy’s neck was nearly fatal.

Wild animals should never be kept as pets. People need to be educated about the arrogance and foolishness of keeping wild pets. Their unpredictability presents tremendous risk. Humans are not good substitutes for wild companions, and can never supply a wild animal with all of the components of a natural environment. A city apartment is no home for a tiger.

Little Joe is the Boston gorilla escape artist. The Boston gorillas have both indoor and outdoor exhibits as part of a multi-acre tropical forest pavilion. I worked there during the time that the exhibits were under construction. The gorilla exhibits are surrounded by moats and artificial rock walls, which separate them from the viewing public and the other exhibits in the simulated forest. Prior to the gorillas’ introduction into the exhibits, a local rock-climbing club was invited to try to climb out. Each climber was given a can of spray paint. As they climbed, they sprayed any hand or toehold that they found. After a weekend of climbing, possible escape routes were identified. The technicians who constructed the artificial rock walls went to work filing down and reconfiguring the holds identified by the climbers. In 1989, the exhibits were state of the art for zoo enclosures. No gorilla escaped until 14 years later. The best human planning and information could not predict that Joe’s curiosity, physique and determination would make him the first. The zoo put up additional security after Joe’s first escape in August 2003, but it was insufficient to contain Joe who went on the lam again two months later.

During the second escape, Joe injured two people who were on zoo grounds near the gorilla exhibit. I can only imagine Joe’s state of mind - the exhilaration of the escape plus the threat of the unknown. His encounter with the humans was swift and left a child and a zoo employee hurt. Based on my years of work with apes in captivity, I do not believe for one second that Joe broke out expressly to rampage and hurt people. I believe he responded out of fear. There have been cases over the years of apes breaking out of zoo exhibits. Most are reluctant escapees who want nothing more than to return to the safety of their enclosures and companions.

Organizations, which maintain captive wildlife for education purposes or for the protection of endangered species, have a formidable task. Only Joe knows what drove him over the moat. But as long as he is entrusted to the care of humans, they must see to his safety, the safety of zoo personnel, visitors and of people living near the zoo.

From the news accounts of Joe’s second escape, the family of one of the injured parties wants to see Joe destroyed. I understand their anger considering the emotional and physical distress they have experienced. But I believe their anger is misdirected. The zoo decided not to euthanize Joe, and may relocate him to another facility. The white tiger has also been allowed to live, as has the tiger from the Manhattan apartment. I support these decisions. The tigers belong in legitimate large cat sanctuaries. These animals are not more ferocious or blood thirsty than other members of their species. This is not an animal problem. It is a people problem. The tigers and the gorilla do not deserve to be euthanized because of human error.

Wild animals belong in the wild. In captivity, there will always be risk. The long-term solution is to protect them in the wild, where they can live full and complete lives. In a world of dwindling natural habitat, this may not be the easiest solution. But it is the most equitable and humane for wildlife.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

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