Last week, a four-year-old Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped from her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and mauled three people, killing 17-year-old Carlos Sousa, Jr. Police officers, responding to the attacks in progress, shot and killed Tatiana after she apparently made menacing moves in their direction.
Two days after the escape and attacks, it came to light that the grotto wall that confined Tatiana and several other big cats was just 12.5 feet high at its lowest point, several feet lower than zoo officials originally thought it to be. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a Washington, D.C.-based trade industry organization that accredits zoos and that The HSUS has worked with on a wide range of issues through the years, recommends that tiger walls exceed 16 feet in height.
Inevitably, a serious incident like this one provokes fundamental questions about the role of zoos and how they operate. The HSUS has been asked to comment, and we have joined other observers in criticizing zoo officials for not maintaining facilities that meet its own industry’s standards. Zoo officials concede that they made a terrible mistake, and other zoo directors no doubt have their tape measures out and are assessing the suitability and dimensions of their carnivore enclosures.
But there is more to the story than wall heights and animal escapes. A core concern of mine is that many zoo directors and other staff at AZA-accredited zoos feel the need to maintain tremendous species diversity at their facilities, presumably to compete with their peer institutions and to meet the presumed wishes of their patrons.
For example, almost all major zoos feel the need to have elephants, even though it is virtually impossible to account for their physical and psychological needs. Then we have Arctic animals like polar bears in cities in subtropical latitudes. Certain animals should just not be kept in zoos.
With an incredible assortment of the world’s megafauna being housed in exhibits on relatively small pieces of real estate in our major cities, it is a difficult challenge indeed to house and care for these creatures. Many zoos, funded by a mix of private and public funds, are having difficulty meeting their financial needs, especially as cities and counties cut funds in order to balance budgets. Funding limits compromise the ability of zoos to keep up and to maintain the highest animal care and safety standards, which often evolve and become more demanding as we learn more about animal species and their needs.
And let’s face it: the San Francisco Zoo and the other accredited zoos are the professional elites in this realm. While AZA accredits about 200 zoos, there are another 2,000 roadside zoos and menageries that are not accredited. At these facilities, hucksters and profiteers house wildlife in deplorable settings, bring virtually no quality science or care to their operations, and pay little or no attention to proper procurement or disposition of the animals. And then there are the circuses, carting elephants, lions, tigers, and other dangerous exotic animals from city to city in traveling roadshows, keeping the animals chained up or caged for much of their lives outside of the circus ring performances. They are appalling and unethical operations that masquerade as legitimate caretakers of wild animals.
Add to that the tens of thousands of private citizens who keep wildlife as pets. By and large, these individuals also typically have little or no professional expertise and insufficient veterinary or animal care resources. They are risk-takers and novelty-seekers, and they often have no idea what they are getting into. As the animals grow into adults, they often languish in backyards or basements, and inevitably these animals threaten their owners or the other people who live in the community. Every week or two, I read of reports of big cats, bears, primates, or large reptiles or venomous snakes escaping or mauling or otherwise threatening or harming someone. While most states prohibit it, keeping a tiger as a pet is still legal in a number of states, including North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin (unless the locality has adopted stricter rules).
Accredited zoos are here to stay, but they can do better. And the professional zoo industry should unite with the humane community to eradicate roadside zoos, circuses that use exotic wildlife, and private ownership of wildlife, especially of dangerous exotics. The case of Tatiana shows us that even the top institutions fall short, and it lays bare the broader crisis in our treatment of captive wildlife in America.