Tag Archives: serious

On People, Tigers, and Teeth

A few days ago, someone broke into a zoo and was bitten by a tiger. This happens and, based on my discussions with zookeepers, is one of the fundamental design criteria when creating an exhibit. Yes, it is important to create a place in which the animal can be as intellectually and emotionally fulfilled as possible, and that it be kept healthy and kept from getting out. However, it’s just as important to keep people from getting in. If you follow zoo news, you’d notice that there about as many stories about stupid people breaking into cages as there are about clever animals breaking out.

Below, however, is a list of headlines for this one single incident. This comes from a Google Alert on the word “zoo” because I find it’s a good way to get an unfiltered view of what’s happening. This one, however, is fascinating because of the way the headlines came out. Take a look at the headlines below, then, if you have time, take the time to read McSweeny’s “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” that explores this issue deeper more deeply than I will be able to.


Basic statistics

This is a list of 56 different headlines for the exact same incident. Let’s take a look at what the authors thought were the most important pieces of information for us to know:

  • All of the articles mention a tiger. That makes sense. After all, that is the news story here. If someone breaks into the zoo, but behaves perfectly politely while inside, it likely would not have received nearly as much media attention.
  • 50 articles, 89.2%, think that the person’s sex is important information. Sure, the English language would use “man” in this context should things be reversed, but still, I have my doubts as to whether or not sex and gender are a critical factor in tiger bites.
  • 20 articles, or 35.7% of them, feel that it’s very important that you know the person was drunk or allegedly drunk. Early articles mentioned that she was high, but subsequent ones suggest that her reactions were due to shock. As that phrasing doesn’t appear in these headlines, I am ignoring it.
  • Speaking of “allegedly”, a mere six articles, just over ten percent, mention that it’s still rather recent information and all the facts aren’t in yet. Two of them say that there may or may not have been trespassing. Four of them say that there may or may not have been drinking involved. None of them give the tiger an out though. Everyone seems certain that the bite came from a tiger.
  • Some of them, 12.5%, think that it’s important you know that the bite came from a three-legged tiger. I’m not sure if that implies that it’s somehow worse to get bitten by a disabled animal, or if they’re going for the irony angle of an animal with three appendages damaging someone’s fourth.
  • One headline – only one – mentions the person’s name.

Culpability of Entrance

However, digging a bit deeper, let’s take a look at culpability and blame.  The facts are that it was after hours, the zoo was closed, and the area in which the tiger was located was off limits both during the day and at night. In order to get bitten, the person must have:

  1. Cross the external zoo barrier, be it over a fence or forcing a door (that’s how zoos work)
  2. Cross an internal zoo barrier to gain access to the tiger (that’s how zoo exhibits work)
  3. Cross a personal barrier, as otherwise the tiger wouldn’t have chosen to bite (that’s how cats work)
  4. Cross a time barrier, by entering the zoo after hours (that’s how opening hours work)

After all, if you were relaxing at home after a difficult day, and someone came into your yard, broke into your house, and tried to pet you, you’d probably bite them too.

Interestingly, of all the articles in this feed, only five describe the event as using anything other than “bite” or “bitten”.  We get “hurt”, “injures”, the pretty intense choices of “mauls” and “chomps”, and my personal favorite “things go … wrong” (that’s midwestern understatement right there).

So we’re pretty sure we know what happened, but who was at fault in the view of the uninformed Internet writers who weren’t there? (Of which I am one, of course.)

If we view breaking or sneaking into a place or trespassing as a wrongful act, a whopping 69.6% of people seem to think the person was at fault. But really, it’s more of a spectrum.  If we view breaking in to a place as worse than trespass, which is worse than evading security or sneaking around, you get the following breakdown:

  • “Broke in” – 14
  • “Trespassed” – 7
  • “Snuck in” / “entered after hours” / “evaded security” – 24
  • No blame assigned to the person’s entrance – 5

(There were also six headlines that were unrelated to the entrance part of the story.)

What’s interesting here is how many writers seem to feel that the person was at fault in some way, but that entering a zoo after hours isn’t as bad as, say, breaking into a bank or house. “Sneaking” being less bad than “trespassing”, and “evading security” being less than “breaking in”, at least so far as most people use the words. Personally, since it’s a lot easier to replace stuff than it is to replace an endangered species, I don’t agree, but I seem to be in a minority here. (But at 25%, not a super tiny one.)

Culpability of the Bite

The other interesting way to view this list is to look at the act of the bite itself. Did the tiger bite the person or was the person bitten by the tiger?  In the former case, the tiger has the agency to act and is an active participant in the incident. In the latter, the only actor in the story is the person, so they are completely to blame for what befalls them.

With this view comes a higher sense of blame than if you view the situation as one in which the person made a mistake and something bad happened to them as a result, such as if they chose to wander too close to a ledge and fell off. No one thinks the ledge is at fault in such a situation, so the say “the person fell off the ledge”, not “the ledge threw the person”.  If, however, the person is walking at a safe distance and there was a problem with the ledge, we would say “the ledge gave way”.

So if we review the list once again, looking at the bites, we learn that the active voice was used 13 times, whereas in 39 times the headline writers used passive voice.  Thus, three times as many people chose to attribute the bite to the person than to the tiger based on very limited data.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

None of these findings should be a surprise. They do, after all, match the story we want to tell.  We like scary animal stories, but we also like stories about underdogs and stupid people. Specifically mentioning the fact that the tiger only had three legs and was old, casts the tiger as the underdog. Specifically mentioning that the person was drunk and female (unfairly) connect to many societal narratives about stupid people getting their comeuppance. So here, we have the scary incident in which a tiger bit someone, but we get to wrap inside a narrative where a female person who was probably drunk broke the rules and paid for it.

Consider the two most opposed headlines:

  • Allegedly Drunk Zoo Trespasser Bitten by Elderly 3-Legged Tiger
  • Tiger bites woman at Omaha zoo

In one story, we have a bumbling person violating law and normal expectations of society, tormenting an old, infirm, animal, and getting their just rewards.  Extending this story from the other headlines of this type, we have a stupid woman screwing up and getting punished.  This, sadly, is a story that we, as a society, love to tell.

In the other story, we have a vicious animal that attacks a poor, defenseless, woman. Again, this is a story that we, as a society, love to tell.

Implied Roles of Humans, Animals, and Zoos

So what does all of this mean? Is it just an interesting linguistic exercise?

I have to think no.

We are, at this time in history, faced with a fundamental question around the issue of animal rights. On one side, we have a group of people who believe that animals have no rights at all, that humans are intrinsically better than everything else, and by right of might or innate superiority, that we should be able to do whatever we want.

On the other side, we have people who believe that animals have rights, though the nature of those rights is under pretty fierce debate. There is the right to live which everyone (except, oddly, some extremist animal rights groups) seems to agree to. However, whether animals have a right to not be held captive is in direct opposition to their right to have a place to live in the wild. It doesn’t make much sense, but a lot of the animal rights fights around zoos are happening around this very basic issue.

While this is often stated as people being pro-zoo and anti-zoo, the discussion that is actually happening is really this:

  • One side says that animals shouldn’t live in zoos.
  • The other says that animals shouldn’t have to live in zoos.

It’s a discussion, at the core, about conservation of land and ecologies. That is not, however, the story we want to tell.  We want to tell a story about stupid animal rights activists (often described as weak-hearted women) going up against the hunting / food / testing / zoo establishments (often personified as the manly men that have sometimes headed them), and getting what they deserve.

We want to tell a story about young, determined people (again, often described as women) going up against the cruel, vicious, zoo world, and we want to feel bad when they can’t free the polar bear or elephant from their painful captivity.

Personal Views

Personally, I do not blame the tiger for responding to what was likely interpreted as an attack. Whether the tiger had three legs or was elderly is irrelevant. An animal in captivity grows accustomed to their environment in the same way an animal in the wild does. Even in captivity, there are times when people are around and times when they are not.

In almost all of the cases I’ve read where an animal attacks in a zoo, it is because their environment changed in a way they didn’t anticipate. This the same whether a surprise human appears and steps into their personal space or a fleet of bulldozers appears and removes the forest behind their fleeing feet.

Also, I believe the woman made a mistake. Looking at some of the articles about this situation, she has a history of making mistakes. While it was probably inevitable that she would eventually get seriously injured or killed if she continued that pattern of behavior, I have a hard time thinking that anyone deserves to get their hand gnawed upon by a tiger. I empathize because, like her, I think tigers are pretty neat.

At a larger scale, I find it interesting how different people chose to report this incident. I wonder how different things would be if the person who was bitten was male, if the incident had happened at a less well-respected zoo, if it had been another type of animal than a tiger. I look at the biases inherent in the language used in the headlines alone and suspect it shows multiple divides within our society.

I see these same divides actively harming animals that the animal rights group claim to want to help. I wonder if there is any way to get the more action-oriented groups to spur on the more careful groups, as the situation is pretty dire for many species. At the same time, I hope that those groups who understand the complexities inherent in conservation can do something to soften those groups often referred to as “radical”. I wonder if their energy can be guided in directions that will help to create the environments in which we all want these animals to live, rather than just focusing on the easier task of destroying the environments that are not ideal.

Just as in language, order matters in conservation. The difference is, with language, we can sit down and talk to work things out. If we do things in the wrong order when lives are on the line, there may be none left when we finally get things right.

Passenger Pigeon

This photo was taken by J. G. Hubbard in 1898.

Many people know the story of the passenger pigeon: the massive flocks where a single migration blocked out the sun for days, the shooting contests where a single gunshot could kill as many as 61 birds, the 7.5 million birds killed over five months in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878: 7.5 million birds were killed in a five month period.

We’d be wrong.

Extinction is complex. Hunting was certainly a significant factor, but it’s hard to eradicate a species through hunting alone. At the same time people were blasting away at the sky, we were also stripping away forests, eliminating their food and shelter. All of these activities together split the large flock into many smaller ones. This matters because the passenger pigeon was a highly social bird and, without large numbers in the colony, they simply couldn’t sustain the population. Passenger pigeons became extinct many years before the death of its last member.

The last passenger pigeon died, in the Cincinnati Zoo, one hundred years ago today. It survived in captivity only fourteen years after it went extinct in the wild. Not all animals are like that. Père David’s deer once ranged across all of China and was sufficiently well known to feature in their mythology. The species has, however, been extinct in the wild for a very long time, surviving for centuries in a private zoo owned by the Emperor of China. Today, it lives on in various zoos throughout the world. The scimitar oryx once roamed North Africa. It was known in both ancient Egypt and Rome. In 1936, there were at least ten thousand. Just over 50 years later, only a handful remained. Today, like the deer, it lives on only in zoos.

And that’s a problem. If a species can survive 50 to 100 years in zoos, it starts to seem normal. Imagine the feeling of wonder one feels walking through the forest and stumbling upon a deer that, in mythology, combined an ox’s strength, a horse’s speed, a deer’s agility and a donkey’s sense of direction. This is the very deer that helped to found the Zhou dynasty and that was believed to grant eternal life.

Now imagine seeing the animal behind bars. They’re still with us … but it’s not the same.

Today, the IUCN lists 4,574 species as critically endangered. The World Wildlife Fund is focusing on a mere 16 well known species. These are species that, if you work at it a bit, can still be seen the wild. You could go to Africa and see a tribe of immensely strong gorillas resting in a glade, caressing one another. You could go to Sumatra and, with luck, get to watch a wild tiger slowly stalking her way through the forest, two cubs trailing behind. In French Guiana, you could see a mass hatching of baby leatherback turtles slowly making their way to sea.

It is very likely that our grandchildren will not be able to do any of these things.

It is also very likely that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will never be able to see any tigers anywhere in the wild. They may never see a whale rising from the depths, showering them with spray. They’ll never get to visit otters, large as people, swimming in the Amazon or see a red crowned crane stalking a fish through a reedy pond.

If you look at the world’s 100 most threatened species, you’ll likely not recognize any of them. A common reaction to seeing lists like this is:

“So what if we lose Bulmer’s fruit bat or the White bellied heron, there are tons of other bats and herons in the world.”

When the next generation looks at their list of threatened species, they’ll feel the same way. The same for their children.

Extinction takes time, if future generations are to value the creatures we love, we must ensure they’re not so rare that our children don’t care. In 1857, most people couldn’t conceive of a world in which passenger pigeons wouldn’t fill the skies. When asked to protect them, the Ohio Senate stated:

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

Today, we can’t conceive of such a world. I’d hate for someone, one hundred years from now, to be writing something similar about the tiger, gorilla or turtle with nothing left but a photograph and some stuffed specimens collecting dust in a handful of museums.

If this would bother you too, please think about taking action with the WWF or donating to the IUCN.

One last thing. When a species dies in captivity, we know their names. This is the song of Martha, Last of the Passenger Pigeons, by John Herald.

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)


A (somewhat) serious post.

Cormorants are cool because they’re basically really crappy ducks. Ducks have oil in their feathers to help waterproof them for their aquatic life style. (The book Ducks Don’t Get Wet is a great resource for more information, if you’re less than this many: ✋.) One can imagine a time in history when little dinosaurs were floating in the water thinking “this is way too cold, let’s develop oils!” and, millions of years later, we get ducks. Cormorants are just starting out. Who knows, maybe they’ll figure out the oil trick and stop having to spend so much time drying themselves out. Maybe, though, they’ll do something else. They could develop a rubber-like feather (like the kiwi did). They could develop hydrophobic feathers (like lily-pads). They could go even weirder and develop some symbiotic relationship with an algae or something that needs the water more than they do, which absorbs it into their developing young and, when mature, drops off the bird at night, leaving it dry and ready for the next day.

Sadly, the only three ways to find out are:

1) Develop a time machine and travel forward to find out what happens.
2) Develop a stasis machine and be stuck in mid thumb-twiddle for several million years.
3) Hope someone else invents a time machine, thinks that cormorants are just as cool as you do, and comes back in time to tell you all about it. I’m hoping for a visitor at ten this morning.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)


A serious post this time.

Monarch butterflies have a multi-generational migratory cycle. It takes up to four generations for them to flutter between Canada and Mexico every season. As one generation dies, the next one is born hatched. However, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. If there’s none available at the stopping place, an entire line of butterflies will die out. As a single species, the monarch illustrates both the complexity and fragility of life. Sadly, we are on the cusp of losing them forever.

In the Winter, monarchs form clusters (or roosts) on branches. This photo is from California, which represents a different set of monarchs. The photographs from Mexico (the primary migrating population) are stunning. I hope to get there some day. The University of Minnesota has a good overview of what happens.

Today, though we’ve answered the question of “Where do the monarchs go?”, we still haven’t figured out how best to protect them. That’s where Monarch Watch comes in. Through a capture and release program, you (as a civilian scientist) can add data to the conservation efforts. By creating monarch waystations, you can help them along their long journey.

When I first went monarch tagging, and I caught (gently) that first butterfly, it nothing like what I had expected. When you take a monarch from the net, you suddenly know, at level deeper than knowledge, how fragile nature can be. When you hold its wings to tag it, you suddenly realize how strong nature can be too. If you have never had that experience, you’re missing out. You owe it to yourself, and future generations, to get involved with the monarch project, at least once.

Bring a friend.