When Zoo Animals Resist

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When Zoo Animals Resist

By Jason Hribal, historian and author of Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance
January 2011

It was on December 26, 2007, when people around the world would first hear about the shocking attack that had occurred at the San Francisco Zoo. One person had been killed and two others critically injured. Blood was splattered everywhere. The police had gunned down the perpetrator. It was, according to all reports, a scene of mass chaos. For not only had a murderous assault taken place on Christmas day, but the killer was not even human.

Tatiana was a four-and-a-half year old Siberian tiger. She had been born in Denver, Colorado, but she was transferred to San Francisco in 2005. She was, at the time, considered to be a sparkling new addition to the zoo’s tiger exhibition. Such embracing attitudes did not last long, especially after Tatiana managed to scale the twelve-foot high wall of her enclosure and escape. There had been these teenagers. They were yelling obscenities, waving their arms, and possibly throwing stuff at her. One visitor described how these young men had been doing the same exact thing with the nearby lions, and that the lions were pissed off. The woman gathered up her family and promptly left the area. Angry lions are scary, even when they are tucked behind bars. Tigers can be even more frightening.

Tatiana went directly after the men who had been taunting her and ripped one of them to pieces. The other two ran. For twenty minutes, Tatiana roamed the zoo grounds. She was presented with many opportunities to attack park employees and emergency responders. She could easily have gone after other visitors. But Tatiana was singular in her purpose. She wanted to find those two remaining teenagers, and she would do just that at the Terrace Cafe. With a dismembering taking place, police encircled the spot and shined their lights onto the tiger. Tatiana turned and approached. They shot her dead.

Zoos and circuses have a standard operating procedure in dealing with the aftermath of such incidences of violence by captive animals. Step One is to claim that escapes and attacks are very rare. They almost never happen. The general public has nothing to worry about. Journalists have nothing to investigate. Yet, we have to ask, is this true? It was one year earlier when Tatiana attacked a trainer. With families watching from about four feet away, the tiger squeezed her paws through the narrow bars of the cage, clawed onto a keeper’s arm, and pulled it in for a bite. “While we were heading out,” a parent lamented, “I could still hear . . . screaming.” San Francisco officials would state that it was “the only injury of its kind that has happened at the zoo.” This was not true. Tinkerbelle the elephant had been involved in a series of dust ups with zoo employees. Then there was Fatima, a female Persian leopard. In 1990, she jumped onto the back of a trainer and bit his neck. “I thought the leopard was going to kill him,” one onlooker noted. “He was screaming, ‘Help me, help me; get him off, get him off.’ I was scared. That was not the kind of thing I expected to see at the zoo.” If only the visitor had known.

In the past two decades, in the United States alone, captive tigers have killed ten people and injured countless more. A partial list would include the 2008 attack on a trainer at the Hawthorn Corporation. Hawthorn is a leasing agency and training facility located outside of Chicago, Illinois. Its fifty tigers are loaned out throughout the year to various circuses and entertainment enterprises. In 2007, it was Berani, a Sumatran tiger, who chomped onto a trainer’s head at the San Antonio Zoo. A year before that it was a tiger named Enshala at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida. Enshala escaped her enclosure and went after a veterinarian. Lowry’s ten-member weapons team, trained by local police, assembled. Many zoos, in fact, have these armed squads whose sole purpose is to respond to escapes and attacks. As for Enshala’s fate, she would die after being hit by four shotgun blasts.

In 2005, it would be back to Hawthorn—where a tiger attacked a touring visitor. In 2004, the Cole Brothers Circus had an escapee run into the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. His name was Apollo, a White Bengal tiger, and he would startle picnic-goers and cause a five car pile-up on the Jackie Robinson Parkway. In 2003, another White Bengal made the news. It was during a Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas, when Montecore clamped down on the neck of Roy Horn and dragged him off stage. Roy barely survived the encounter. That same year a Sumatran tiger named Castro attacked his trainer at the Sacramento Zoo. The man would also survive but not by much. In 2000, an Amur tiger escaped during a fundraiser at Zoo Boise in Idaho. “Feast for the Beast,” as the party was publicized, was almost just that. The tiger chased down a patron and began chewing on her. Police ended up shooting the woman but missed the cat.

In 1998, it was Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus’s turn for trouble. While stopped in St. Petersburg, Florida in January, several tigers were brought into the center of the ring for a photography session. Trainer, Richard Chipperfield, was in charge. At some point in photo session Arnold, a four year-old tiger, decided to grab a hold of Chipperfield’s head with his teeth. Only after being whipped and sprayed with a fire extinguisher did the tiger let go. But the damage had been done. Arnold was returned to his cage, and the trainer’s brother, Graham, executed the tiger with five shots. Graham himself had been attacked several years earlier by a group of performing lions. As for Ringling Brothers, their problems would continue. In November of that same year, another tiger would escape and take a run at a trainer. It also ended violently.

Our list of confrontations could go on. We could add to those incidents that happened outside of the United States. There was, for example, a tiger attack in Moscow in February of 2006. Asked afterwards about whether the Russian circus was going to kill the tiger involved, the trainer responded with honesty. “If we were to shoot every tiger that attacks us, there wouldn’t be any remaining.” Not so lucky was the fugitive tiger from a Polish show. In March of 2000, this animal fled into the streets of Warsaw. A circus veterinarian tried to stop him and they tussled. Police opened fire and killed both man and tiger.

Also, we have not even begun to address the activities of other big cats: lions, jaguars, cougars and cheetahs. The latter, for instance, seems to be particularly adept at the art of escape. Olivia the cheetah climbed a fence, bounced off a tree, and cleared a wall to get out her San Antonio Zoo enclosure. She roamed the visitor-filled park for twenty minutes. Halala scrambled over a twelve-foot wide moat and a twelve-foot high wall at the St. Louis Zoo. Keepers had no idea how she did it. At the Nashville Zoo, an unidentified male cheetah would spend ten hours on the loose before being captured. And who could forget what happened in October of 2008. Two cheetahs, while being transfer to the Memphis Zoo, escaped from their cages and strolled about the cargo hold of their Boeing 757 passenger flight. Indeed, such incidences occur far more often than the zoos and circuses would lead us to believe.

Step Two in the standard operating procedure is to deny agency. The key words to remember are “accident,” “wild,” and “instinct.” The tiger injured her trainer by accident. She is, after all, a wild animal. She was just following her instinct. Repeat these lines enough and people will believe you. Yet, when we begin to explore these incidents more deeply, we discover that the zoos and circuses are deceiving us once again. Tatiana targeted a group of teasers. She could have escaped the enclosure anytime, but she needed motivation. She could have attacked others, but she wanted revenge. A frequent visitor to the zoo told a reporter of witnessing a similar attempt by another tiger in 1997. The unnamed female had just missed scaling over the wall. Evidently, she wanted at the nearby keeper. As the man would explain to those around him, “She always does that. She hates my guts.” The veterinarian at Lowry Park admitted to the same thing after Enshala was killed. “This cat hates me.”

Remember the case of Fatima, the leopard who jumped onto the back of a San Francisco trainer. Schoolchildren told a newspaper reporter that only seconds before the attack the man washing out her cage had sprayed Fatima with water. Or how about Montecore. She had been performing for over six years at a clip of eight shows a week. The night of the attack she refused to obey a command and the trainer threatened her. She bit the man’s arm. When the trainer hit her in the head with a microphone, she grabbed him by the throat. In each of these scenarios, the actions were neither accidental nor instinctual. These cats attacked for a reason.

Consider the case of captive elephants. These animals have the capability of inflicting large-scale fatalities. They are big, strong, and fast. Yet, when given the opportunity to plow through a crowd of visitors or stomp a row of spectators, they almost never do. Instead, they target specific individuals. There is the case of Janet, a Great American Circus elephant. During her rampage in 1992, she had a group of children riding on her back. She could have easily thrown them off and killed them. But she didn’t. Janet, in point of fact, paused midway through the melee, let someone remove the children, and then continued her assault on circus employees. As to her primary motivation, that was revealed when Janet picked up a fallen object off the ground and smashed it repeatedly against a wall. The object turned out to be a bullhook.

The bullhook, or ankus, is a nasty device that the many zoos and circuses use to train their elephants. It looks like a crowbar but with a sharpened point on the curled end. Think of a large inverted fishhook and you would be on the right track. Trainers use the device as a weapon to strike, stab, and cause pain and fear. Ringling Brothers trainers were videotaped in 2009 viciously beating their elephants with these instruments of torture. The philosophy behind the bullhook is straightforward: violence equals discipline. It is with no understatement to say that the methods of training in this industry can be brutal.

Circuses, for example, have long preferred the use of the whip as their means to direct tigers and lions. The whip allows the trainer to maintain a safe distance and still deliver a good deal of pain and fear. Some circuses have updated to more modern devices: electrical prods and stun guns. Others have chosen to stick with the blunt instruments. Hawthorn’s trainers, for example, like to use baseball bats. But no matter the instrument, the purpose of these weapons is control. The trainer wants the tiger to jump through a hoop of fire. The tiger does not want to. The trainer whips, shocks, or beats the animal until he or she performs the action. This is a learned response, and all captive animals have had to endure this violent education. Some of them have been taught with negative reinforcements. Others have been fortunate enough to train with positive reinforcements. In either case, here is where things can take an interesting turn.

Every captive animal knows, through learned response and direct experience, which behaviors are rewarded and which ones are punished. These animals understand that there will be consequences for incorrect actions. If they refuse to perform, if they attack a trainer, or if they escape their cage, they know that they will be beaten, have their food rations reduced, and be placed in solidarity confinement. Captive animals know all of this and yet they still carry out such actions—often with a profound sense of determination. This is why these behaviors can be understood as a true form of resistance. These animals, as will be shown throughout the book, are rebelling with knowledge and purpose. They have a conception of freedom and a desire for it. They have agency.

We have now officially reached dangerous ground, as the above claims will always be met with the accusation of anthropomorphism. According to many, only humans can be endowed with emotions, culture, intellect, and the ability to resist. But there is a retort. The main thing to understand about the idea of anthropomorphism is that, historically, it has no empiricism behind it. Rather, it is a loaded term: loaded with political, economic, social, and cultural meanings. The Catholic Church, in ancient times, used it to destroy paganism and thus increase the church’s power and influence. Today, it is science and industry that wields the sword. Their methodology, though, is opposite to that of the church. Instead of uniting various sectors, they seek to divide and draw wide chasms between humans and other animals. This distance, they hope, will create a general public who neither knows nor cares about the lives and labors of tigers, elephants, or monkeys. It is a human centered and
human dominated world, which science and industry seeks. This narrow perspective allows them to continue their exploitation of other animals in a completely unquestioned and unmolested fashion. The ultimate
goal, of course, is to make the largest degree of profit possible.

As for those individuals who dare go against the idea, they will automatically be called out and publicly censured: “You are being anthropomorphic!” Sadly, this kind of reaction and labeling has led to self-censorship. There are lines of inquiry that a great many people are afraid to cross, as to do so can mean ridicule, castigation, and, yes, unemployment. The smart person will simply internalize the term. Nowhere has this behavior gained a stronger hold than within the university—home of the status quo. Yet, it should be remembered that it was not so long ago when, in universities across the country, the ideas of eugenics and racism were also considered to be true, essential, and scientific categories of analysis. Professors loved them to no end. Today, the situation has changed, and the university is embarrassed, even to the point of denial, of its iniquitous past. Anthropomorphism awaits the same graveyard.

Step Three in the standard operating procedure is a public pledge to prevent such incidences from ever happening again. If it was an escape that occurred, then the zoo or circus will make design modifications. San Francisco, for its part, extended the concrete wall and constructed a glass partition, which raised the overall height of the tiger exhibition to nineteen feet. Electrified hot wires were strung along the moat. The zoo put up signs that forbid the harassment of animals. If it was an attack that occurred then these institutions will change their protocol. The training of employees will be made more extensive and intensive. Handlers may no longer be allowed direct contact with the animals. Also, the animal perpetrators themselves could undergo retraining or be placed under an entirely new system of management. But, if the animal is a repeat offender, then the zoo or circus might get rid of him or her altogether. In the past, summary executions were used. Some of the more popular methods included firing squads, poisonings, and hangings. These have since become a political liability, so the industry has instead turned to animal dealers for help.

This is how it works. Flagship institutions, such as the National Zoo, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Six Flags, and Ringling Brothers, will sell their unwanted animals to licensed auctioneers and dealers. These individuals will then turn around and re-sell them to unlicensed third parties. Alan Greene’s Animal Underworld (1999) can provide more detail on this subject, but suffice it to say that the key facet in this relationship is the absence of a direct connection between the original sellers and the final buyers. Thus, zoos and circuses can deny involvement in such dirty business and hide their avarice. As for the unwanted animals, they will end up in private collections, canned hunting operations, research labs, and exotic-meat slaughtering facilities. Some of the animals, especially tigers, will be killed outright for their organs, fur, and claws. According to Interpol, the international trade in exotics is an eight billion dollar a year industry. And no animal is safe. These flagship institutions will sell endangered and non-endangered species alike: leopards, camels, Bengal tigers, antelopes, gazelles, lions, white rhinos, gorillas, chimps, and orangutans. Perhaps you will remember Knut, the famed polar bear cub. In 2007, a kind of hysteria revolved around him, as visitors by the thousands flocked to Germany to catch a glimpse. Knut’s owner, the Berlin Zoo, licensed his image and placed it everywhere. The zoo made $8.6 million off of the Knut craze. Nevertheless, by December of 2008, Berlin wanted to dump the bear. Knut had grown up, and he was no longer cute or marketable. It was only through a public uprising that the zoo relented and agreed to keep the polar bear—at least, until the fervor dies down.

Step Four in the standard operating procedure is to manage public relations. The American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA), governing body of the industry, provides workshops on the successful PR techniques. The central thesis of them is this: control the information. Every institution should have a designated spokesperson. When questioned, and regardless of the question, this person should state repeatedly that the zoo is an important resource for conservation and education. Reassurances must also be made that appropriate changes have been implemented and that the park is safe for the return of visitors. Again, rigorous control is foremost in importance—as damaging information can easily leak out. Such was case in aftermath of Tatiana’s raid.

News came that the tiger was being fed ten pounds less meat per individual feeding in San Francisco then she had been during her confinement in Denver. This led some to speculate that the zoo was trying to get Tatiana to be more active for visitors. If the tiger was continually hungry, the thinking went, she might move around more and thus be more entertaining to paying visitors. Officials were forced to deny the claim. Next came news of a $48 million bond, which the zoo had received earlier, almost all of which was spent on enhancements for visitors. The animals, meanwhile, continued to reside in decrepit and cramped exhibits. Tigers can have a range of over 100 square miles in their habitats of Eurasia. In San Francisco, Tatiana barely had only 1000-square feet to roam around in. Such realities of captivity are known to cause psychological problems: unconscious swaying, incessant pacing, and self-mutilation. Zoo officials, again, had to defend themselves. The tiger, they affirmed, was not suffering from depression and her enclosure was more than adequate in size. The final piece of bad news for the zoo came when it was revealed that there were two near escapes by other animals just a week after Tatiana’s rampage.

During one of them, a female polar bear named Ulu tried to scramble over a wall but was turned back with the stinging spray from a firehose. A keeper quietly confided that Ulu only did this because he and others had been “pelting” the bear with empty tranquilizer darts. In response to this incident, the zoo’s director followed standard procedure. “That doesn’t sound like an escape attempt to me,” he began to explain. The bear was simply being a bear. Yes, the zoo is now planning to raise the walls of Ulu’s exhibit, but not because of what Ulu did. In all seriousness, the zoo’s PR flacks suggested, this kind of scrutiny and questioning is unnecessary if not vindictive. The zoo is the real victim.

There is an African proverb. “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.” For myself, the meaning behind the adage has long represented a challenge—one which I took up in 1998. I had just recently matriculated to the University of Toledo in order to study with the historian Peter Linebaugh. My purpose was singular: I wanted to understand history from below. That fall, I took a research seminar on the Gilded Age, and the topic I chose to write about was the Toledo Zoo. It could have ended up being a standard history: the zoo and its directors, their curatorial ideas and the evolution in exhibit design, and a list of animals. Yet, my work with Linebaugh led me to see the research material in a new light. Information that I would have previously missed or passed over now became evident. More specifically, I noticed that the captive animals were resisting and that resistance was having an effect. The zoo and the circus no longer remained the hero.

In late 2006, I decided to engage this topic once again, and, through my research, the resistance became ever more evident. Captive animals escaped their cages. They attacked their keepers. They demanded more food. They refused to perform. They refused to reproduce. The resistance itself could be organized. Indeed, not only did the animals have a history, they were making history. For their resistance led directly to historical change. In the case of Tatiana, her eyes were burning bright that Christmas day. She inspired others and brought about larger questions concerning captivity and agency. Concerned citizens, animal advocacy groups, and the City Board of Supervisors all got involved. Even the Wall Street Journal published an article exploring the incident. The San Francisco Zoo, for its part, still has not recovered. Yet, we must never forget from where this struggle begins and ends: with the animals themselves.

Jason Hribal is a historian and author of Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. He can be reached by email.