December 29, 2007

Happy New Year, San Francisco Zoo

When I was a little girl, a friendly keeper at the San Francisco Zoo invited me into a cage and let me hold a koala bear. It was a thrilling moment. And one not likely to be repeated in today's climate of institutional fear over "deep-pocket" lawsuits.

Because the topic of my doctoral research and subsequent publications was public exhibitions of masculinity among young male humans, my antenna went up on Christmas when I heard about the tiger attack at the S.F. Zoo.

What caught my interest was the initial news report that the tiger attacked three young men who had been lingering by the tiger's cage after the zoo had closed - possibly ignoring other potential victims.

Another detail increased my professional interest. The two surviving victims, brothers age 23 and 19, were hostile and uncooperative with police. Think about it: If you were stalked and mauled by a rampaging tiger, why would you try to mislead and obstruct investigators?

A third revelation of note was that these brothers, Kulbir and Amritpal Dhaliwal, were awaiting trial for a recent display of alleged drunken aggression. In that Oct. 9 incident, police caught the brothers chasing two men; after their arrest they allegedly cursed police and kicked the police car's security partition. They are scheduled to appear in court in a couple of weeks on misdemeanor charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest.

Interestingly, it was the older of these belligerent brothers that Tatiana the tiger first attacked; the unfortunate Carlos Sousa Jr. was apparently killed when he intervened to save his friend.

While speculation persists about the victims' potential contribution to the attack, the media are focusing more on the height of the wall outside of the tiger grotto's moat. Is it built to the height of the recommended standards of the 21st century? Of course not. It is 67 years old. And in all those years, not one tiger has escaped. Indeed, experts say that around the world thousands of tigers are kept in enclosures of roughly the same height, and they don't escape.

As one wildlife expert commented, the ultimate explanation for Tatiana's attack is not the height of the wall, but the "stimulus" she was reacting to. "Tigers around the world are perfectly safe behind 10-foot or 12-foot walls," said Martine Colette, founder of a wildlife refuge in Southern California. "There had to have been a tremendous stimulus that made the tiger react the way she did."

In a state of extreme fear or anger, a tiger - like a human - is capable of extraordinary feats of strength that otherwise would not have been possible. Based on this, professor of medicine Mark Siegel commented, "It seems clear that Tatiana was provoked or taunted to such a state of anger or agitation that her hyper-drive took over."

If indeed the tiger was provoked, this would conform with a typical display of masculine aggression. These displays - which often take the form of sexual aggression or antigay harassment - serve the functions of proving masculinity, social bonding, and the celebration of male power. In these forms of participatory theater, the targets - whether they be women, gay men, or even, as in this case, a tiger - serve as interchangeable dramatic props. (See my article on this topic.)

While no avenue of investigation should be ignored, I hope the media and investigators will focus as much attention on the likely provocation as in Monday morning quarterbacking of the zoo's response. As a struggling public institution whose aim is to educate the public about wildlife conservation and endangered species, the S.F. Zoo can ill afford a deep-pocket verdict based on misplaced castigation.

Also see my update of Jan. 1, 2008.

Photo credit: Kurt Rogers, S.F. Chronicle