Get em Tigerby Brendon Bosworth / 20.01.2010
Last week a Canadian man, Norman Buwalda, was killed by his pet tiger.
The press hasn’t delved into the gory minutia, but it’s likely the 295-kilogram beast chewed through his jugular or ripped off his head. A terrible way to go, but I can’t feel sorry for him. According to the WWF, less than a century ago tigers prowled the forests of eastern Turkey and the Caspian region of Western Asia; their habitat stretched across to the Indian sub-continent, China, and Indochina, south to Indonesia, and north to the Korean Peninsula and the Russian Far East. Nowadays, with three of the nine subspecies already extinct and widespread destruction of their natural environ caused by humans, as well as poaching taking its toll, the largest members of the cat family find themselves with a shrinking domicile. Tigers can be found in parts of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Sumatra, and the Russian Far East, with a few still surviving in China and possibly a few in North Korea.
Nowhere does the WWF mention tigers enjoying the climes of Shedden, a Canadian hamlet revered as the ‘Rhubarb Capital of Ontario’, and its rural surrounds. To be fair, a Siberian tiger might get along fabulously in the snow, but that’s beside the point. Taking a wild animal, especially one that is endangered and requires space to hunt and live out its natural life, from its indigenous surrounds and keeping it locked up in a barn-loft pen is cruel, unfair and tantamount to slavery. Buwalda, whose other captives included two lions (ever heard of those in Canada?), another tiger and a cougar, was the chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association which, as stated on their website, ‘is against the capture of wild animals being kept in captivity unless the animal is incapable of surviving the wild.’
So Mr Buwalda was protecting his detainees from the dangers of the jungle? Truly, I’d like to believe he was. Perhaps his pets were schizophrenic, bulimic, anorexic or manic depressive? Only too glad to retreat to this far-away garden where the rigours of modern jungle life were nothing but an occasional night terror that could be quelled by a handful of sleeping pills. But I can’t believe it. I think people who keep wild animals locked up do so for their own selfish reasons. I think they like using the ‘I’ve got a tiger at home’ line as a conversation starter. I think they enjoy ushering gawking admirers around their mini zoos and showing off their trophies. What I think they love most is the concomitant sense of power: having the magnificent creatures rattling the bars, eagerly waiting on them to dish out the next slab of meat or take them out for exercise, invokes something of a god complex. The mighty provider deigns when comfort and freedom will be afforded. That’s the ultimate kick.
It happens on a smaller scale with domestic pets, run of the mill beings: dogs, cats, hamsters, parrots, even the lowly goldfish. Some people love to feel needed and somehow seem to have internalized a notion that they have the right to ‘own’ other creatures and make them dependent. But nature comes out fighting, often unexpectedly, a reminder that wild animals are exactly that, wild. They don’t want to hang out, listen to humans talking crap, or play fetch. They prefer being left to their own devices. Buwalda may have done well to heed the lessons of other unfortunates. Last year, Charla Nash had most of her face ripped off by her neighbour’s rabid pet chimp, Travis. She was left sans eyelids, mouth and nose, with all her fingers gnawed off. The fourteen year-old primate, who was suffering from Lyme disease, was keyed up on anti-anxiety drug Xanax at the time and had escaped from his cage. Nash was trying to help her neighbour and friend, Sandra Herold, get the ape back into her house. Herold ended up stabbing the deranged ape in the back with a kitchen knife; the police finished him off with a bullet. Then there was terminal crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. I always wondered how someone touting himself as a conservationist could go around wrestling crocs and generally irritating and harassing any form of wildlife that made for good television. In the end, it wasn’t the teeth of a reptile that got him, but a stingray barb to the chest. Game over.
The all-time icon of self-engineered death by wild animal has to be the ‘grizzly man’, Timothy Treadwell. The hapless bear enthusiast spent thirteen summers camped out in Katmai National Park, Alaska, observing and filming the resident grizzlies, often attempting to touch them. He didn’t see anything wrong with it and allegedly claimed he was using his films to raise public awareness about the plight of the powerful animals, notably appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote his book, Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska. Turns out the bears didn’t appreciate his concerns: in 2003 he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were ravaged and killed by a bear in their campsite. Treadwell’s disfigured body was found with his head connected to a small piece of spine; his right arm and hand lying nearby with a wristwatch still attached. Huguenard was found badly chewed and buried in the ground. Two bears, one discovered to have human remains in its stomach, were later shot and killed by park rangers. Four unnecessary deaths due to one man’s uninvited interventions into the natural order
As far as lessons go, Buwalda ignored his warning. The press reports that in 2004 a ten-year-old boy, who visited Buwalda’s property to photograph his animals for a school project, was mauled by a Siberian tiger that was led out on a leash. He landed up in hospital. Reportedly, neighbours had been rallying for years to have the creatures removed. A bylaw was passed that banned anyone in the Southwold Township from owning exotic animals, but this was fought by Buwalda and his legal team and overturned by a judge after a two-year court battle.
Buwalda didn’t heed the harbingers but hopefully others will. More importantly, maybe people will think twice about the ethics of keeping wild animals as domestic chattel. There is a place for keeping wild animals in captivity: when they are being rehabilitated and prepared to go back into the wild or into national parks and protected areas. Conservationists around the world are doing a good job at that. These beasts are not pets, play things or friends. Humans have done enough to destroy their livelihoods, decimate their numbers and use them for their own greedy desires. The least we can do is leave them in peace and give them the respect they deserve.