Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 27, 2007

Escaped tigers

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

San Francisco Lion House

Guantanamo human house

Until the assassination of Benazir Bhutto occurred, the cable news networks were consumed with the news of a tiger escaping from its cage in the San Francisco zoo and killing one man and wounding two others. Today’s NY Times reported:

Now considered a crime scene, the San Francisco Zoo was closed to visitors on Wednesday as police investigators swept the grounds searching for evidence to explain how a Siberian tiger escaped its open-air grotto on Tuesday, killing one young man and seriously injuring two others.

Investigators are seeking witnesses and intend to interview the survivors, two brothers ages 19 and 23, who were in shock but in stable condition after surgery to clean wounds from “deep claw and tooth attacks,” said a doctor at a news conference at San Francisco General Hospital. The identity of the brothers has not been released.

The tiger, a 300-pound female Siberian named Tatiana who attacked a zookeeper last December, was shot to death by the police after the zoo’s 5 p.m. closing on Tuesday, after it somehow jumped barriers around the Lion House habitat and killed Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, of San Jose.

The police said they were trying to determine whether the tiger escaped because of negligence or equipment failure or whether it was somehow provoked to jump the 18-foot wall around the grotto.

So far commentators are quite worked up over the question of a tiger jumping 18 feet into the air, since that would tend to render zoos around the country as possible breeding grounds for repeat terrorist attacks by suicide felines. Just picture a pissed-off tiger jumping over the head of a full-grown giraffe and you get a sense of the worries felt among zoo management circles. It must be equal to what the CIA felt after 9/11.

The NY Times refers to a “Lion House Habitat,” but how in the world could a zoo replicate the real habitat of a tiger? According to http://www.bigcatrescue.org:

Indian tigers generally have a range of 8-60 square miles, based on availability of prey. Sumatran tigers have a range of about 150 square miles. Due to the severity of the climate and lack of prey, the Siberian tiger can require a range of 400 square miles. Tigers have lost more than 40% of their habitat in the past decade.

With the loss of habitat, you will naturally see a decline of this species–a fate that all animals at the top of the food chain are now facing with the large-scale “development” taking place in rain forests everywhere. Indeed, there are more tigers in captivity today than there are in the wild.

As might be expected, zoos emerged at the very time that Western colonialism had begun to descend on the natural habitats of whales, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and other such masterpieces of the natural world. John Bellamy Foster identified the scope of the problem in the April 1998 Monthly Review:

The main reason that the ecology of the entire planet—as we know it—is now threatened with “irretrievable mutilation” has to do with the rapidly rising rate at which human beings are transforming the earth, on a scale that is now truly planetary in character, rivaling the basic biogeochemical processes of the planet. A few facts are worth noting. Somewhere between a third and a half of the land surface of the earth has been transformed by human action; the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has increased by some 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution; humanity now fixes more atmospheric nitrogen than all natural terrestrial sources combined; more than half of the fresh water sources are now put to use by human beings; 22 percent of marine fisheries are being overexploited (or have already been depleted), while 44 percent are at their limit of exploitation; one-quarter of the Earth’s bird species have been driven into extinction by human activities; rates of species extinction are now 100 to 1000 times those that existed prior to the human domination of the earth.

At the rate things are going, the only animals living outside of zoos toward the 21st century will be those that have evolved to live off the detritus left by homo sapiens: crows, pigeons, rats, mice, seagulls, coyotes, raccoons, etc. Our descendants will be able to visit zoos and see caged tigers, lions and gorillas driven to the same distraction as the San Francisco escapee but only there. By the late 21st century, all of Africa and Asia should have been turned into industrial parks churning out goods for Walmart–that is unless humanity puts an end to private production based on profit.

Zoos are the quintessential symbol of “civilization.” When mankind built cities out of the surplus product afforded by agricultural innovation, it found itself increasingly removed from the natural world. To amuse themselves and their subjects, the Monarchs of such cities brought back exotic creatures from lands they had conquered and put them on display in “menageries”. For the French Kings of the 17th century, carrying on in a tradition that went back to the Roman Empire, the menagerie was an “establishment of luxury and curiosity,” according to the “Methodical Encyclopaedia” of 1782.

After the French Revolution, there was a strong reaction against all forms of monarchic privilege, including the menagerie. In keeping with the national aspirations of the bourgeois revolution, the menagerie was abolished in favor of a zoological garden, which was accessible to the entire population and designed to foster scientific exploration. Founded in Paris in 1794, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes was the first zoological garden and became the model for zoos everywhere.

The zoological garden was the natural outgrowth of botanical gardens, which were stocked with plants gathered up by scientists accompanying sea voyages by the big European powers in pursuit of territorial conquest. If you’ve seen the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” you will recall how the ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin was anxious to bring back new plants with him to London for further study. This was part and parcel of Empire-building.

Soon animals would be brought back in the same spirit, either dead or alive. To take just one grizzly example, the Earl of Derby’s Museum (the forerunner to the Liverpool Museum destroyed by an incendiary bomb during WWII) contained some 25,000 specimens.

Transporting living specimens back to the Mother Country involved the same kinds of cruelties associated with the slave trade, another staple of the rise of colonialism. You can find this system documented in “Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West” by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, a book that does for the animal trade that people like Kenneth M. Stampp and Herbert Aptheker did for trade in human beings. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier write:

African wildlife was generally classified as a ‘colonial commodity’ and, like all other ‘commercial resources’, was exploited without much care and at terrible expense, for the animals at least. Carl Hagenback told of a caravan’s progress as, laden with animals, it crossed the burning deserts of the Sudan at night over the course of several weeks. A hippopotamus, wrapped in a stretcher made of hide, was carried by two dromedaries and the water for his bath by two others. Goats followed: they suckled the younger creatures, and were then killed by the big cats. J.V. Domalain described such practices in twentieth-century Laos as quite usual: wounded cats were not given anything to drink and then abandoned to the sun, their gangrenous legs tied together. Hagenback related that a sea elephant, weighing 1,410 kilos, sent from the Cape of Georgia to Stellingen, held out for 40 days without a bath or food. This was at a time when travel was very stressful. In 1810, according to Fréderic Cuvier, it took three months to get from Borneo to Spain, then two more to get to Paris across the snow-covered Pyrenees. In 1824, an Indian elephant would travel for six months to reach Paris; in 1850, five months; in 1870, 62 days. It would often arrive exhausted with sea-sickness. In 1928, the month’s journey from Cameroon or Madagascar to the zoo at Lyon was still long enough for animals to arrive emaciated and wounded.

The ‘packaging for this material’, according to the term used by Lyon’s zoo in 1934, was the sabot, a small cage reinforced only at the front, as animals did not try to escape from the back. Tossed about without protection for their claws, big cats tore themselves to ribbons and bled to death or put their own eyes out. The movements of the great circuses taught many lessons, and ships began to specialize in the transport of wild animals. Around 1923, the Congo’s riverboat services and several others were offering the attractive price of 50 francs per cubic metre. A surcharge for large animals cost one first-class ticket, for reasons of food: for an Indian elephant, two thousand kilos of hay, twelve hundred of bananas, five hundred of sugar-cane and four hundred of green cabbage had to be taken on board. Aboard ship, gorillas were given food that had been poorly preserved in refrigerators of inadequate size, and the water was unsuited to the aquariums. Delivery of animals by air began in 1948, the zoos of Copenhagen and Antwerp being pioneers in this area.

No wonder that tiger jumped 12 and 1/2  feet into the air and killed the first human being it could get its claws on.


  1. Whenever we move our mouse on a link on WordPress it opens a snapshot window.It is so clunky and unhelpful. Do you really like this feature?
    It is better to remove this. I have seen some WordPress blogs disable it.
    Has nobody complained to you about it?

    Comment by Ajit — December 29, 2007 @ 5:23 pm

  2. This is the most interesting article I’ve read on the subject. Still very much a front page item here in the SF area. Most commentary is either of the, “I’ll bet those kids were asking for it,” school or the “Animals are beautiful people who have rights the same as rocks and waterfalls,” school. I’ll admit that my thoughts lean toward the latter, but I appreciate the reminder that the brutalization and exploitation of animals is nothing special.

    I worked, for a few years, in California agribusiness. I noticed that people, animals, plants and “things” (soil, water, landscapes) were all treated about the same. They were subjected to a process of reification that stripped them of any living qualities and reduced to a quantifiable “thingness”.

    Tragic that it happened the way it did, but not surprising that the object of global conquest, a thing to be regarded, asserted itself as a being.

    Now, what to do about these pesky damn zoos? I tend to view them as useful but evil. I hate to see a tiger in a cage, but I hate the thought of a world without tigers. I’m no deep ecologist, but the thought of a world without wild elephants hurts my heart. An Earth where elephants, or tigers, exist only in cages seems like a very bad place.

    I live on the edge of Northern California suburbia. It always gladdens my heart to read about a Mountain Lion sighted on a hill above some subdivision.

    Comment by Jon — December 29, 2007 @ 11:48 pm

  3. Guess what, with all you marxist deconstruction, THEY WERE ASKING FOR IT:

    AN FRANCISCO (AP) – One of the three victims of San Francisco Zoo tiger attack was intoxicated and admitted to yelling and waving at the animal while standing atop the railing of the big cat enclosure, police said in court documents filed Thursday.


    read on – they were driving drunk and stoned on the way to zoo – some family was saved the horror of colliding with these scum because the tiger diid the job.

    Maybe we should send the tigers to Gitmo!

    Comment by Joe — January 18, 2008 @ 8:02 am

  4. The last comment of your blog got a nod of yes from me. While i certainly identify with ALL the beings involved in this tragedy, i have to say, your statement at the end rang very true for how i feel.

    i did a vid on youtube about a possible premonition i had about the san francisco ordeal. youtube.com/platoonofsparks “Dream Story”

    Comment by "Still" — February 6, 2008 @ 1:51 am

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