Why Tigers Attack

The mystery of how a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo managed to escape from its cage, kill one visitor and maul two others is getting clearer. Three days after the fatal attack, investigations by the San Francisco Police Department disclosed that the Lion House's wall was nearly four feet shorter than the height recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos in the United States. But another factor could have been involved: there have been reports that one of the victims provoked the tiger, named Tatiana, by dangling his legs over the exhibit wall. "If an animal is used to spectators on the other side of the barricade and someone … has their leg dangling over, that could be a problem," says Scott Lope, operations director of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Florida. "They could be provoked by anything out of the ordinary." Lope explains that while tigers are not particularly territorial animals, they are extremely attuned to changes in their environment. Lope, who has spent 10 years working with tigers and other big cats, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff about what provokes a tiger to attack and why the number of such attacks has been on the rise for more than a decade. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: There have been some reports that the victim was taunting the tiger by dangling his legs over the exhibit wall. Is this something that could provoke a tiger to attack?
Scott Lope:
These animals are wild. They are completely unpredictable. You don't know what might make them angry. You know that you can provoke an animal, especially a tiger. They are on the top of the food chain, so it doesn't take much to provoke them. You might say they have a bit of a shorter fuse than a deer, which would simply run away.

So taunting could have been a factor in this case?
I think it definitely increases the chance of attack. If this is an animal that is used to spectators on the other side of the barricade and someone has crossed or has their leg dangling over, that could be a problem. They could be provoked by anything out of the ordinary, whether or not it's somebody deliberately provoking them.

What is it about taunting that could provoke a tiger? Is it that they feel threatened, see prey, or is it something else?
It's more that they notice anything out of the ordinary. In the wild, they look for an animal that may be limping or one of the prey animals that might be acting differently. They notice everything. They are intelligent enough to know when people are safely behind a fence and would absolutely notice something dangling over a wall.

Do you think there's anything to do with territoriality at play here? Was the tiger trying to protect its space?
I don't think it's territoriality. They are solitary animals, so they don't really have much of a sense of territoriality. Canines travel in a big pack, but with cats, especially tigers, it's a little different. Tigers … wouldn't even live with mates unless they are actually mating.

What about a dominance relationship?
Some may come from a background where they were forced do things, like an entertainment background. That's when humans are trying to establish dominance. [Tatiana came from a zoo background. She lived in the Denver Zoo before moving to the San Francisco Zoo last December.] But the bottom line is they are so unpredictable. Even the ones that tolerate me most that I work with, all bets are off.

Your organization has tracked 530 attacks by big cats since 1990. That seems like a pretty high number. Why so many?
These attacks seem to increase each year. It's shocking to the average person. But there are no federal laws that regulate tigers or big cats. The most obvious problem is that they eat things the size of people. These are killing machines; they are predators, and almost everything about them is designed to hunt and kill. It's incredibly difficult to house and safely cage a 600-pound tiger.

Your organization often rescues tigers from private ownership. What drives people to own these animals, which pose a pretty big safety risk?
It's an ego thing. It's a desire for someone to have something that makes them unique. They have a tendency to collect many animals. It's hard for people to stop—especially if you've raised some of the animals from a cub. It makes them very popular; everyone wants to see the tiger cub and play with it. But when the animal reaches sexual maturity, then one day you can't handle them anymore, and that's when the problems start.

You often work with mature tigers. Do you ever get scared?
Absolutely. We have over a dozen, and it's a risk to work with them. Just being complacent around them could get you killed. Every day you have to be on your toes, no matter how docile they seem.