Zoo's public feedings of big cats praised, condemn|Richard_F|richard@cfz.org.uk|01/24/07 at 13:44:06|richard_f|xx|0||Zoo's public feedings of big cats praised, condemned by experts
> - Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
> Tuesday, January 16, 2007
> Click to View
> Thrilling. Barbaric. Primal. Anachronistic. Awe-inspiring.
>Unnerving. Sick.
> Those are some of the adjectives used to describe the public
>feeding of lions and tigers at the San Francisco Zoo -- a venerable
>ritual that has stopped with the closing of the zoo's Lion House
>after a gruesome attack on a keeper three days before Christmas,
>observed by scores of visitors.
> In the wake of the Dec. 22 mauling of Lori Komejan, whose right
>arm was chewed up just after mealtime by a Siberian tiger named
>Tatiana, the future of the Lion House is unclear.
> "It will be closed until further notice," said zoo spokesman Paul Garcia.
> Over the decades, generations of Bay Area residents have watched
>the big cats devour chunks of horsemeat in their cages inside the
>Lion House. The public feeding occurs six days a week at 2 p. m.,
>when the four lions and three tigers are summoned from their outdoor
>enclosures. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the menu includes dead rabbits as well.
> The event is one of the zoo's most popular attractions -- and
>increasingly one of its most controversial.
> "It was the highlight for me," recalled 72-year-old Bob Paterson
>of Rocklin (Placer County), who grew up in the city.
> "One time when I was a kid, I walked 5 miles to the zoo," said
>the retired PG&E employee. "I got there at 2 p. m. It was raining,
>and I was the only one there. When one lion roars, they all roar. And
>I said to myself, 'I'm in Africa.' "
> He visited that continent in 1978 and 1984 and will return in
>May -- all prompted by his Lion House experiences.
> Other zoo patrons have come away with far different memories.
> "It was barbaric," said Shannon Rizzo, who lives in Lafayette
>and homeschools her four children. "It seemed like something out of
>the Middle Ages. A public gathering for something that's kind of
>private. It would be OK if we were unseen observers and it were less
>of a circus."
> Katie Harrar, an event producer from San Francisco, said she was
>ambivalent about the feedings before Tatiana's encounter with Komejan
>but now is convinced that they should stop.
> "I think we're beyond that, honestly," Harrar said. "I want to
>learn, but not to the extent of watching somebody toss a carcass and
>watch the animal go nuts over it. It's old-school, and it's not
>appropriate anymore."
> About three years ago, Harrar dropped by the Lion House with her
>1-year-old niece, who was in a stroller, and noticed that the lions
>and tigers were eyeing the small children in the crowd as if they
>were a "potential meal."
> "It was really disconcerting and unnerving," she said. "It got
>me thinking, 'Who's really watching whom?' "
> Harrar wasn't imagining things. Martine Colette, founder of the
>Wildlife WayStation refuge for wild and exotic animals in Southern
>California, said, "Small children are always a temptation for large
>predators because they're like moving hors d'oeuvres."
> Although the pros and cons of the public feedings could be
>debated endlessly -- in terms of their effects on keepers, onlookers
>and animals -- most experts agree with Colette.
> "We don't allow children under 7," said Louis Dorfman, an animal
>behaviorist with the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in Boyd,
>Texas. "It's just the size of the kids. They're inherently looked on as prey."
> Dorfman, 69, said he has had more than 35,000 unprotected
>contacts with exotic cats over the years. The value of public
>feedings of lions and tigers depends on how they're done, he said.
> "I would be concerned that it would condition kids to think it's
>OK to get close and to feed them through the cage," he said.
> Dorfman frequently walks into the habitats in the Texas
>sanctuary after assessing the mood of the residents. Last week, he
>hand-fed two tigers 40 meatballs apiece.
> "I am much safer doing it in their presence than I would be
>trying to do it through the fence," Dorfman said.
> The reason is simple -- they're cats. "They just want to reach
>out and grab something," he said. "They don't associate the object
>coming through the fence with that person."
> When Tatiana reached under the cage in the Lion House and seized
>the hands of Komejan, a 46-year-old single mother who lives on the
>Peninsula, she probably meant no harm, Dorfman said.
> Another veteran of unprotected contact with big cats was less
>conflicted than Dorfman about the public feedings in the Lion House.
> "I think they should never have been permitted," said Rich
>Menefee, a former keeper at Marine World who runs a manufacturing
>company in Santa Cruz County.
> "The very same tigers that I literally rode around like ponies
>were the same tigers that tried to rip me apart at feeding time," he
>said via e-mail. "Feeding time was never observed by guests. It was
>an awe-inspiring experience."
> San Francisco might have the only zoo in North America where big
>cats are fed in public, said Ronald Tilson, director of conservation
>at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn., and head of the
>Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for tigers.
>He said a few institutions have started introducing parts of whole
>carcasses, but most have become a "little too sterile" and rely on
>food processed in factories that carries no risk of disease transmission.
> "It's very easy to clean afterward," Tilson said. "There isn't
>rabbit fur flying everywhere, getting stuck in the drains. But the
>process of chewing and gnawing and crunching bones is good for the
>mouth and makes it closer to what real feeding was like. It's very
>common in Europe."
> One proponent of public feeding is Carole Baskin, chief
>executive officer of Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary with more than 100
>felines in Tampa, Fla.
> "We do public feedings to show people that the cats they may
>have seen elsewhere on leashes, doing tricks or posing for photos,
>become entirely different animals in the presence of food," Baskin
>said. "When a person sees a tiger crunch through a cow femur like it
>was a potato chip, they can visualize what some part of their body
>would look like in the cat's mouth."
> She is hoping that such visceral displays will end the demand
>for big cats as props or pets and put breeders out of business.
> Komejan, meanwhile, is still recovering at San Francisco General
>Hospital, although officials won't release any details. The assault
>on her was rare in San Francisco Zoo history but not unprecedented.
> On March 16, 1935, a mountain lion named Bruce attacked San
>Francisco police Patrolman Walter Ames in what was then known as the
>Fleishhacker Zoo. His partner, Officer Norman White, reacted. The
>next day, a front-page Chronicle story described what happened:
> "There was a savage roar as a tawny paw lashed out, caught Ames'
>coat sleeve and drew his arm into the cage. In a moment Officer Ames'
>whole hand was in the lion's mouth and he could feel the teeth tear and grind.
> "Up ran Officer White, whipped out his service pistol and fired
>-- once, twice, three times. The jaws relaxed as the huge beast
>rolled over on its side dead."
> In March 1949, a polar bear called Mischa crushed the arm of
>Arthur McKinney, a house painter who was tossing some lump sugar his
>way. The bear finally let go -- he wanted to knock his cage mate away
>from the treat.