Touched By Tigers’ Power, Beauty

“Chaque Homme Est Un Tigre!” So read the giant sign over the entrance to the Battalion spaces of Pensacola’s Preflight Class 47-57 (the 47th class of 1957): “Each Man Is A Tiger!” The words arching over the visage of a snarling tiger. The photo of our preflight class grouped around that sign is one of my favorites among the memorabilia of those earliest days of my Navy career.

Indeed, of all the symbols our battalion officer could have chosen to represent the qualities of pride, relentlessness, toughness, innate intelligence, beauty and just plain awesomeness, the tiger has no peer.

We were tragically reminded of this recently with the ignominious deaths of 18 of these endangered regal animals, resulting from the mental breakdown of a self-proclaimed zookeeper on his Ohio farm. He released his collection of 56 exotic animals from their cages before committing suicide. Other big cats that had to be dispatched were 17 lions and three mountain lions. Other animals put down included bears, wolves, apes and monkeys.

Naturalist and animal expert Jack Hanna is affiliated with ABC News and happens to be director emeritus of the nearby Columbus, Ohio, zoo, immediately drove all night from Pennsylvania to be of help. In interviews on the scene he was visibly distraught by the carnage, especially the loss of the tigers.

“We’ve kinda thought there were still maybe around 4,000 to 5,000 of these beautiful animals left in the world, but recently we’ve had to revise that down to around 1,400, and here we’ve just lost 18 of them all at once. It’s like Noah’s Ark just wrecked.”

Until 20 years or so ago there were nine subspecies of tigers, but three of them the Balinese, Javanese and Caspian have disappeared. That leaves the Amur (Siberian; largest), the Bengal (Indian; the tigers lost in Ohio), the Indochinese, the Malayan, the South Chinese (all 47 of which are in zoos in China) and the Sumatran.

These six subspecies differ in thickness of fur, depth of color and size, and can be differentiated only by an experienced eye. Tigers’ markings are like snowflakes, there are no two identical, and they can vary from side to side on the same tiger. The only commonalities are the long canine teeth (longest in the animal kingdom) and the white spots on the backs of their ears, hypothesized to be false eyes to discourage sneak attacks from the rear, or perhaps to help cubs follow their mother and each other in the dark. For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine the average tiger being much concerned about the former.

The trend toward extinction is mostly because of habitat fragmentation and destruction, and poaching. Tiger parts (especially fur, feet, claws, teeth, hearts, livers and penis) are still valued for their “mystical healing powers” and draw a dear price at too many Oriental apothecaries. Since the mid1990s, known tiger country has declined by more than 40 percent.

There has been considerable second guessing about the need to kill so many of the released animals at the Ohio farm.

Actually, the local sheriff and his crew couldn’t get on scene until nearly dark. They came with dart guns and tranquilizer darts, but the first few efforts resulted in the animals either charging or fleeing the boundary of the farm. To keep the animals from spreading into the countryside in the night it became prudent to kill them.

Jack Hanna concurred with the sheriff’s decision. “It had to be done. There was a loss of life here, and we thank God it was not human life. It was animal life … and that’s my life.” Hanna is determined to see Ohio outlaw the trade and keeping of exotic animals.