Elizabeth Explains

Science Stories and More ——— From Elizabeth Deatrick

One with the Tiger

Humans have always had a healthy respect for large predators. But when that fear and respect disappears, we start to have problems––and nowhere is this clearer than in the modern zoo.

Anala, a female tiger at the Franklin Park Zoo. Photo by Elizabeth Deatrick.

Consider the tiger. On September 23rd of 2014, at the Delhi Zoo in India, a young man either fell or jumped into the tiger pit. There, after a 15-minute standoff, the man was mauled to death.

There is some disagreement as to whether the young man intentionally jumped into the enclosure, or whether he accidentally fell in––but if he jumped, he wouldn’t be the first. Take this visitor to the Bronx Zoo, who was so determined to become “one with the tiger” that he scaled two sets of fences:

Many big cat exhibits, including those at the Delhi Zoo, use a large moat or pit to separate the animals from the visitors. This seems to work well at keeping animals in (with the notable exception of the San Francisco Zoo’s moat, where an enraged attacking tiger was able to climb out), but without additional fences, the moat does nothing to keep determined human visitors out.

There is another approach: reinforced glass walls. On the surface, these are the best of both worlds: humans and big cats can safely see and interact with each other.

But this isn’t a perfect solution: glass walls serve as both metaphorical and literal insulators. They save visitors from the creatures on the other side, but also keep them from connecting with the animals on such a visceral level. Sounds are muffled, and smells blocked. Photos of the animals come back with glare and smudges. Furthermore, it costs a great deal to renovate an exhibit.

By contrast, in an open-air moat design, visitors can feel as if there is nothing between them and the majestic cats. Photos come out crystal clear, and any sounds the cats make are clearly audible. Even fences, of various types, allow for visitors to hear the cats clearly, even if the bars get in the way of pictures.

This sense of being in the same space as a wild animal is vital––it’s one of the main functions of modern zoos, since visitors are less likely to care about, and learn about, and save animals that they feel no connection to. Moreover, we hunger for this connection. But until visitors can be trusted to keep themselves on the right side of the barriers, however, zoos will be forced to weigh safety against education.

This post was previously published on the Boston University news service as “One with the Tiger,” and on a prior iteration of Elizabeth Explains as “The Eye of the Tiger”

A warning on the tiger cage at the Franklin Park Zoo.

A warning on the tiger cage at the Franklin Park Zoo. Photo by Elizabeth Deatrick.

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