Wednesday, January 16


While we're still waiting for fact and allegation to be sorted out in the escaped-tiger story, here's an illuminating peek into how the situation was handled, as reflected in the 911 recordings.

Now, after an emergency rescue, it's always easy to Monday-morning-quarterback the situation and second-guess the rescuers' effectiveness or decision-making. That said, an interesting fact (as presented here, anyway) stands out: Life-saving rescue was probably delayed by zoo employees' inability to believe that one of the big cats had escaped: "That is virtually impossible. ... I can't imagine how he could have possibly gotten attacked by a lion. He would have had to have gotten in [the big cat enclosure]. I just can't see it." The rescuers have to weigh one of the victims' unambiguous pleas, "My brother's about to die out here!" against this "authoritative" claim.

Why would zoo employees find an escaped lion or tiger "virtually impossible"? For the same reason - stay with me now - that a relative promised me in 2002 that "They're not gonna find any Mad Cow in American cows. There isn't any. Our government wouldn't let that happen."

When it comes to management of animals and their by-products, underqualified or outright incompetent individuals are given a free pass to distort the truth as they report on their own situations; and the public, which might apply a certain skepticism to analogous non-animal claims, buys it - because they need to believe that the reality presented by animal activists is wrong. They need to believe that it's ethically OK to eat animals, that it's not unhealthy and/or outright dangerous, and in this case, that the animal-exploiting institution that pays them is truly looking out for their welfare as well as that of its captive animals - rather than, say, lowballing the construction of an enclosure and lying about it.

Think this is a stretch? Remember that the disbelieving calls were coming from the zoo cafe. What kind of food do you suppose they were used to serving and eating there? And recall that one of the many ways the National Zoo demonstrated its insuitability as animal handlers was feeding beef and fish to vegetarian apes. For an entire group of people - those who were supposed to know best about caring for animals - the notion that meat would not constitute the best possible food was inconceivable.

Additionally, the wariness of the rescuers in confronting an escaped animal predator points to how incomparably dangerous such a situation is: With most (not all) dangerous humans an appeal to either logic or self-interest can be applied: Drop the weapon or you will die. Such a cause-and-effect statement cannot be conveyed to an escaped tiger. Thus it will fight you to the death.

Yes, escapes of this particular sort are rare. But if and when they do happen, and they do, they illustrate how insane it is to keep wild animals - at the very least, the predatory ones - in such proximity to large numbers of city dwellers. That this continues not only to happen but to be portrayed as essential heartwarming Americana is, well, hard to believe.

UPDATE 1/20: Some new details, though with wildly varying levels and quality of sourcing. And some things that make you go Hmmmm: "It is unclear what Paul Dhaliwal told police as there is no summary of his account in the search warrant affidavit." Uh... huh.... and "Matthews said investigators could not determine how long those items [possible thrown matter in the tiger cage] had been there, because the zoo's operations director, Jesse Vargas, 'told me that they could not answer any questions regarding the tiger and/or the tiger exhibit per their attorney's request.'" Okeley-dokeley.

UPDATE 1/29: Well wouldn't ya know, now that the media glare has died down, it just ain't all that important to sort out fact from allegation in this case. Authorities basically threw up their hands and said "I don't know and I don't care." I'll see if the boys' lawyer makes good on his supposed efforts to clear their good name before I post again on this, but it bears repeating that nothing they did or did not do can exonerate the zoo for building a tiger enclosure that a tiger can jump out of and kill people.

Sunday, January 13


In a similar pattern to the last post, behavioral studies over the past couple decades have increasingly shown that the concept of "dumb" animals has been a function of humans' inability to understand animal thinking rather than something intrinsic to the animals. Here's the latest:

"[S]some sci­en­tists have said an or­gan­ism must be con­scious if it has 'ep­i­so­dic mem­o­ry.' This is ba­sic­ally the mem­o­ry of the 'what, where and when' of events in life. New re­search has found that some an­i­mals may have just this sort of mem­o­ry."

Let's recap that: It's a syllogism - if A has 'episodic memory,' then A is conscious. Some A have episodic memory. Therefore, some A are conscious.

I must admit when I read through the specifics of the experiment, a heightened sense of smell seemed like a possible alternate explanation, so this kind of thing should be replicated wherever and however possible to nail down the conclusion. But of course, even that would show that animals' capabilities are beyond our current ability to judge. And of course there are also multipled other studies on other kinds of animals showing some form of consciousness. So add this to the ledger.