AR-News: Sacramento Bee: Is a wild animal ever really 'tame'?

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Thu Oct 9 12:42:45 EDT 2003

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Sacramento Bee

October 8, 2003, Wednesday METRO FINAL EDITION
 Is a wild animal ever really 'tame'?

 Cynthia Hubert Bee Staff Writer
Nature built them for grace, speed and power.

So it is no wonder that tigers and other wild felines are among the most
captivating animal entertainers and the most coveted creatures in the exotic
pet trade.

But the very qualities that attract humans to big cats make the cats highly
dangerous in captivity, animal specialists said, pointing to two remarkable
incidents involving tigers in recent days.

On Friday night, in front of a large audience at the Mirage hotel-casino in
Las Vegas, illusionist Roy Horn of the famed Siegfried & Roy duo was
critically injured when one of the show's signature white tigers attacked
him and dragged him off the stage. As of Tuesday, Horn was in critical
condition at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, and the future of the
show remained in jeopardy.

Less than a day after the mauling, a bizarre incident played out in New York
after a Brooklyn man apparently lost control of the pet tiger that he had
raised in his apartment. Police, after rappelling down the side of the
apartment building, subdued the tiger with tranquilizers, and the owner
suffered only minor injuries.

The incidents demonstrate the volatility of captive wild animals, which
regardless of training can revert to instinctive behaviors without warning,
said Melissa Bain, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist at the University
of California, Davis.

"They can be tamed, but they can never be fully domesticated," Bain said.
"They always have the potential to show their wild behavior. Sometimes an
instinctive pattern clicks into motion."

Pat Derby, a former Hollywood animal trainer and founder of the Performing
Animal Welfare Society, said the incidents are powerful arguments for an end
to live animal shows and for tougher laws pertaining to the capture and sale
of exotic creatures.

"People call these things anomalies. They argue that these are freak
accidents," said Derby, whose sanctuaries in Northern California house wild
creatures rescued from abusive conditions or retired from the entertainment
industry. "But if something like this can happen to someone as skilled and
adept as Roy Horn, considering all the care and precautions he has taken
over the past 30 years, no one is really safe.

"I'm sure that Roy understood the risk he was taking. But what if that
animal rendered him helpless and dove into the audience and some little old
lady from Pasadena was his target?"

The Animal Protection Institute, a national organization based in
Sacramento, argues that animal rage and frustration are partly responsible
for attacks on trainers and handlers. Although trainers are using "positive
enforcement" more often to encourage animals to perform certain feats,
exotic cats "are often whipped, choked and beaten" during training sessions,
said Nicole Paquette, the organization's director of legal and government
affairs and its specialist in exotic animals.

"They are time bombs waiting to explode, and many of them do," Paquette
said. "We see it over and over. They snap, and someone gets injured, usually
the trainer."

Since 1990, API reports, at least 110 people have been attacked by captive
felines, 13 fatally. Elephants used in circuses have killed at least 43
people during the same time period, the organization reports.

The tiger attacks include a 1998 mauling at Marine World in Vallejo, where a
Bengal tiger turned against a San Jose woman during a photo session. The
woman suffered cuts to her neck and throat, and the park canceled future
photo sessions with tigers.

No reliable statistics exist on attacks by captive animals kept as pets,
because the practice is poorly monitored by a patchwork of state laws and
local regulations, said Paquette. Nineteen states, including California, ban
private possession of large cats. New York requires exotic-pet owners to
acquire licenses to keep the animals, although the Brooklyn man had no such
permission, according to news reports.

API estimates that private individuals around the country keep thousands of
tigers as pets.

PAWS has rescued many exotic animals from unscrupulous breeders and traders,
including three Siberian tiger cubs seized last week from a dealer outside
California, said Derby.

"This dealer had just about everything, including leopards, lions, tigers,"
she said. "These are animals that very well could have ended up in Brooklyn.
People are fascinated with tigers. They are status symbols. It can be a
macho thing."

The three Siberian cubs have taken up temporary residence at the PAWS
facility in Galt, which is raising funds to build a special tiger enclosure,
said Derby.

As cubs, tigers are "cuddly" and gentle toward their human trainers, said
Derby, who worked with the big cats in movies and television commercials
without serious incident. But they grow into aggressive carnivores that can
weigh 400 pounds to 700 pounds.

"At first, they think you're the boss," Derby said. "But as they mature, the
males in particular get restless. They realize they are not supposed to be
doing what you are training them to do.

"They start challenging authority. Suddenly, you are no longer their boss."

* * *

The Bee's Cynthia Hubert can be reached at (916) 321-1082 or
chubert at

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