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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Life Not Taken

Earlier this week, there was tragic news of out New Zealand.  Samantha Kudeweh, a curator at the Hamilton Zoo, was killed by a Sumatran tiger at that facility.  Like keepers everywhere, I was extremely saddened to hear the news, and offer deepest condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.

Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Hamilton Zoo

I'd like to take a moment, however, to talk about the other participant in this tragedy - the tiger.

In the aftermath of the attack, there were rumors circulating that the animal was going to be euthanized.  Further interviews with the zoo management confirmed that these rumors are false - there is no intention to destroy the animal.  This is standard policy at virtually every zoo, aquarium, or other captive wildlife facility.

Many people seem surprised by this.  Whenever a zoo animal seriously harms or kills a keeper, I always see the question circulating in social media, will the animal be destroyed?  When visitors do something stupid or crazy and put themselves at risk of being harmed or killed by an animal (i.e., the woman in Memphis who decided to feed cookies to the lions), commentators tend to grouse, "Great, now this idiot is going to get killed, and it's the animal who will be put down as punishment."  That's not how it works with zoo animals.

I understand were people get this idea from.  After all, if a domestic dog bites a person, that's often the fate that awaits it, so why not zoo animals?  Because a lion or tiger isn't a dog.  We aren't expected to interact freely with them, day in and out.  I've worked with plenty of big cats that I've had special relationships with, many of which I think "like" me.  Most of them, I suspect, would still kill me if I went in with them.  Not because they're hungry, or angry, or anything like that... it's that they are a big cat, and would see me as a very big mouse to play with.  A tiger that kills isn't an unusually aggressive animal that poses an exceptional danger compared to other tigers... it's a normal tiger.  Same thing with any other zoo animal, even the ones that keepers do work free contact with.

Zoo staff will, if necessary, shoot to kill an animal if it poses a clear danger to someone, or if it is an immediate escape risk.  They will not "execute" one after the fact.  For example, during the wild dog incident at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium a few years back, one of the dogs was shot while staff and police tried to rescue the child.  After it was realized that the child had been killed, there was no reason to kill the rest of the pack. If my colleagues see me being savaged by a bear, they will shoot it to try and save my life.  If the bear has already killed me, they know killing the bear won't bring me back, so why compound the tragedy by destroying the animal?

Animals have intelligence, and animals have emotions.  I've never doubted that, nor can anyone, really, who spends a lot of time working with them.  It's not a human intelligence or human emotions, however, and we need to remember that.  Among other things, that means we can't pass moral judgement on a zoo animal.

Working with large carnivores, elephants, and other dangerous animals is a privilege that zookeepers embrace, along with the risks that come with it.  To hear the people who knew her talk about her, Sam Kudeweh felt that way, too.

She wouldn't have wanted anyone to hurt that cat.

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