Panthera tigris tigris
This isn’t a post I wanted to write. Usually I enjoy doing this blog but I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post for days even though from the moment it occurred to me I knew with a rare clarity what it was that I wanted to write about.
If you were paying attention to the news in the middle of last week you’ll probably be able to guess from the title alone what this post is going to be about. On the other hand, news moved so quickly last week that the major, shocking story of one day may already have been forgotten.
A week ago, on the nineteenth of October, a man named Terry Thompson released from their cages fifty-six exotic animals that he kept on his farm in Muskingum County, Ohio, and then shot himself. When the alarmed and frightened residents of Zanesville, a town near Thompson’s farm, started reporting sightings of such animals as Lions (Panthera leo) and Tigers (Panthera tigris) on their streets, local police set about hunting the escaped animals, with orders to shoot to kill. Ultimately, all but a single monkey were tracked down, and of the fifty-five animals found forty-nine were shot; only six animals were captured alive. The dead animals included seventeen Lions, eighteen Bengal Tigers, two Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), six Black Bears (Ursus americanus), and two Wolves (Canis lupus).
The killing of the eighteen Bengal Tigers was most shocking of all. The Bengal Tiger is not a species in itself but rather one of several extant Tiger subspecies. As the name suggests it’s found around the south Asian subcontinent, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan. To say that it’s found in those countries, though, is tragically misleading: there are estimated to be fewer than 2500 Bengal Tigers remaining in the wild. Even more appalling, though, is the fact that this number is enough to rank them as the most populous of all the Tiger subspecies. On the website for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the reference page for the Tiger is highlighted by one simple, heartbreaking word: “Declining.” Hearing that eighteen representatives of an animal so close to extinction had been killed in a single event was – and still is – shocking and appalling.
As terrible as the events in Muskingum County were, the killing of the animals was made all the more distressing by the nature of the images of the aftermath. Not just the images themselves – though seeing scores of dead Lions and Tigers lying scattered about the Ohio grass was bad enough – but the nature of the images, the quality of them: all the footage shown on television and online of the aftermath of the shootings was dark and grainy, blurry almost to the point of being indistinct. It made what was already a horrifying story seem even more trangressive, even more of an outrage, suggesting that the shooting spree was so shameful that its aftermath could only be filmed in secret. The footage had something of the visceral haziness of a half-remembered nightmare.
For me it was jarring to hear that it had been specifically Bengal Tigers that had been killed in the greatest numbers. I rarely think about Bengal Tigers these days, but when I was a child they were one of the first animals I ever fell in love with. I adored Tigers back then, as I think all children do; furthermore I had a particular and obtuse interest in anything unusual or little-known or just difficult to find out about: in primary school I once wrote an assignment about Cicadas (Cicadidae) not just despite the fact that the school library contained no books about them, but because of that fact. I barely knew what a Bengal Tiger was when I was a child, but neither did anybody else as far as I was aware so I was hooked. Knowing now that they are so close to extinction upsets me in ways that I’m barely able to express; in addition to that, knowing that eighteen of them have been needlessly killed distresses me deeply.
Let me say right now that I don’t blame the police in Muskingum County. I can’t imagine that there are many small-town police stations in Ohio which are equipped with tranquiliser guns, let alone the personnel trained to use them. From what I understand of the situation night was beginning to fall, and the police were quite rightly concerned for the welfare of the townspeople they were sworn to protect. That is as it should be. The animals didn’t need to die, but that is not the fault of the police. The animals should never have been released from their cages; Terry Thompson is to blame for that. They should never have been in cages on someone’s private property in rural Ohio in the first place; the Ohio state legislature is to blame for that. The animals’ deaths were needless not because there wasn’t, on the evening of the nineteenth of October, a pressing need to deal with them, but because they oughtn’t to have been in such a position that they needed to be dealt with in the first place.
For all that it dominated news coverage last Wednesday, the story of the killing of Terry Thompson’s menagerie soon vanished, replaced by a much bigger story: the capture and death in Libya of Moamar Gaddafi. That story came out of the blue as much as the events in Muskingum County had two days earlier, and both events evoked in many people – certainly in me – mixed feelings. While the killing of the animals in Ohio was an isolated event from a place which otherwise would have remained utterly unknown, however, the death of Gaddafi was the unexpected culmination of long series of horrifying events: for months – for years, decades – the news from Libya has been a cavalcade of outrages and brutally oppressive violence. So why is it that the killing of forty-nine exotic animals is the story that continues to haunt me?
I’ve long been susceptible to stories about animal suffering. To name just one example, when, in university, I was introduced to William Maxwell’s wonderful novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, it was the fate of the dog in that story that really grieved me, despite the novel being about such potent human themes as jealousy, murder, and family tragedy. I can’t say whether I’ve always been inclined to feel more touched by the misfortunes of animals than those of humans because I think that it’s a tendency that has grown over time. It’s not something that I’m proud of and I recognise that it’s wrong to shed more tears over dead animals than dead people, but to our constant vexation emotions are beyond rationality.
Animals are, undoubtedly, easier to get along with than humans, not because humans are unpleasant – whatever else I may be, I’m certainly no misanthrope – but because animals are generally easier to predict and to understand than humans. Cats (Felidae) have codes of behaviour among themselves that are in their own way as delicate as those of humans, but the consequences of a human transgressing a cat’s sense of propriety are not nearly as calamitous as would be the effects of behaving in a similarly tactless manner to another human. A Cat will scratch a human, hiss and run away, but will quickly forgive and forget the offence. Relationships between humans are much more delicate, and much more complicated. For those of us with a tendency towards shyness the company of animals can come as a great relief, an opportunity to truly relax in the presence of another being. That our relationships with other animals can never offer even a fraction of the rewards of our relationships with our fellow humans can sometimes seem like an acceptable sacrifice – at least for a little while.
All of which is, I think, why I react so strongly to stories of animal suffering. There’s undoubtedly a paternalistic element too: pity for those poor ignorant creatures who find themselves victims of human whim and caprice. There’s innate in most people, I think – I hope – a tendency towards sympathy for the least powerless among us. That powerlessness – and consequently that sympathy – is magnified tenfold for animals.
But being able to explain it doesn’t make it right. For a day the story of the animal shootings in Muskingum County was inescapable, but soon enough the media moved on. Outside Ohio, the wider world moved on too. Terry Thompson was mentioned in all the accounts of the story – but only as background information: his time in jail, anecdotes of his disregard for the animals he kept. For all the media noise surrounding the shooting of the animals, though, one shot stayed quieter than all the others: the shot that Terry Thompson inflicted upon himself. The total number of animals killed on the nineteenth of October in Muskingum County, Ohio, was in fact not forty-nine, but fifty. Among them were seventeen Lions, eighteen Bengal Tigers, two Grizzly Bears, six Black Bears, and two Wolves, and one Human (Homo sapiens).
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org