Last evening, a Tiger named Tatiana escaped her compound at the San Francisco Zoo and mauled three visitors,
killing one before being killed by Police. In reporting that news this morning, CBC radio included the following caveat..."the
Tiger had a history of violence."
Well, not exactly...
To quote comedian Chris Rock commenting on the Tiger attack on Las Vegas magician Roy Horn of
Siegfried & Roy, "That Tiger didn't go crazy, that Tiger went Tiger!"
I've had the pleasure of working with Tigers
on several occassions, including one set where a big cat mauled two crew members. And, while I don't know the whole story
about what happened at the SF Zoo, in the end, I think we'll discover there's a lot more to the story. Most of all, I wanted
to assert that there's no such thing as a Tiger with a "history of violence".
The first time I worked with a Tiger
was the first episode I wrote of the CBS series "Adderly" which concerned the terrorist takeover of a foreign embassy and
included a Tiger (a symbol of the fictitious nation's royalty) getting loose and adding to the dangers as our hero tried to
rescue the terrorists' hostages.
Working with wild animals occurs frequently in film and television, and the process
is approached with all the care and attention possible -- because first and foremost, no matter how well-trained an animal
might be, it's still an animal, not bound to any human rules of behavior and therefore completely unpredictable.
producers and I met with the trainers of the Tiger we would be using, learning exactly what the animal would and would not
do, how many takes it could be relied on for each piece of business and most importantly, what actors and crew could and could
not do in its presence.
Based on those discussions, the script was refined and went into production.
the trainers met with each production department, making sure props and costumes didn't include animal products or scents
that might attract the cat's attention, what the procedure was if a light arc'd, a sound cable fed back or a gel began smoking.
Actors were carefully schooled on what movements were and were not allowed, highlighting anything that might make the animal
believe his co-worker had suddenly evolved into some category of enemy or prey.
You see, wild animals view the world
differently than we do. Unimportant details to us trigger primal instincts we'll never understand in them.
the kids' movie "Lions for Breakfast", the other actors and I had to play a scene in which the bus we're riding breaks down
in the middle of one of those drive-through wildlife parks. We decide to sack out until morning and wake up to find the vehicle
surrounded by a pride of hungry Lions.
It was a terrific sequence, shot with two cameras, one in the bus with us, the
other in a glass doored camera truck nearby. We shot our dialogue through the night and as dawn approached, were locked into
our respective vehicles as the Park Rangers herded about a dozen Lions into our enclosure.
On our Tiger's first day
on "Adderly", cast and crew were gathered on set and given final instructions before the animal was finally introduced. With
one trainer at the ready with a holstered Magnum, the other entered with our Guest Star on a chain.
He was magnificently
beautiful and far bigger in person than he'd appeared in his cage. His eyes swept the unfamiliar faces in the room as his
nostrils puffed and flared, expelling all air to take in as many new scents as possible. Then he turned -- and pissed all
If you've ever smelled a catbox, multiply that by a thousand and similarly expand one of those clumped puddles
for the gallons that shot over us, the walls and everything else. He was marking this new territory and that included the
humans who wanted to be near him.
Sodden and stunned, we watched as the cat turned, seemed to smile and took his place
for the first scene. We were told to wear our now smelly clothes for the balance of the Tiger's stay on set. He never gave
us another moment of trouble. Although, I swear he smirked everytime he saw me in that stained shirt.
have told me that they prefer working with Lions to Tigers. Lions, apparently, will beat you up pretty good if they get annoyed
with you, but seldom try to finish you off. A Tiger's first instinct, on the other hand, is to kill and it finishes the job
as quickly as it can -- usually in under 30 seconds.
On "Beastmaster", we had fifteen Tigers on staff. Our lead Tiger,
"Sasha" had lived with her trainer since birth and loved him with more affection than I'd seen from a devoted dog. Yet, he
assured me, he knew that if he were to turn his back on her for even a second at the wrong time, she'd kill him. It's what
Tigers do and they do it very well.
The "Beastmaster" Tigers came from "Dreamworld", a theme park down the road from
our Queensland, Australia studios. And although part of the park exhibits, they were also trained and supervised by a scientific
team not only studying Tiger behavior, but working to expand the genetic pool that might eventually save the big cats from
Through them, I was introduced to aspects of the animals that most people never get to see. The series
crew were given an extensive grounding in not only how to behave around Tigers, but the nuances in their behavior that might
forshadow an incident. We also learned the verbal expressions and body language that would assure them we were friendly, not
really worth sampling for lunch nor in need of being peed upon.
On set, a Marksman always stood by with a high-powered
rifle, no matter how docile or reliable the animals appeared to be. And it was easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.
You were around these creatures every day. Some got excited to see you, came over to get a good whiff of you, occassionally
even rubbed up against you like a happy kitten.
The other cats seemed to take their cues from Sultan. If he was in
a good mood, they were too. If something was bothering him, the others were equally surly or wary.
Day's end was signalled
to our Tigers when a rail fence was erected from their on-set enclosure to their trailer, indicating it was time to return
to Dreamworld and dinner. One evening, I arrived on set as the crew went for the window shot (the last shot of the day). The
fences were up and Sultan and his brothers were squashed against the gate, eager for wrap.
But as often happens when
you're fighting the light and trying to get one last take, things started to go wrong. A light burned out, sound had a problem,
something wasn't right with a costume. The two minutes the cats usually had to wait quickly turned to 20. I glanced at an
unhappy Sultan. He met my look, stuck out his tongue and blew a Bronx cheer. A couple of other cats joined him. Pretty soon
the whole gang was making fart sounds to let us know how unfair it was to keep them waiting.
A few days later, while
filming with our 2nd Unit, Sultan turned on two trainers costumed as episode characters and in less than five seconds inflicted
serious puncture wounds. It was over before the Marksman had time to take aim and all that saved Sultan's life was that one
of the wounded trainers convinced our shooter the attack was over.
Both injured men were med-evac'd out as news choppers
converged on the scene and our "Tiger Attack" made headlines across Australia and I'm sure much of the rest of the world.
Within a few hours, we were in meetings with the "Dreamworld" scientists, Queensland Wildlife Inspectors and Government officials
to figure out what had gone wrong.
But our production operating procedures were far more strict than even the government's
own rules and as much as we tried to find the flaw, it seemed that no one had done anything they shouldn't have.
we had theories. The smoke from nearby wildfires had spooked Sultan. He'd taken the synthetic animal skin one of the trainers
was wearing as the real thing, or thought another animal was attacking one of his friends.
Or -- our Tiger had simply
To paraphrase another of Chris Rock's lines, "If you praise fire for cooking your food, you can't damn
it for burning your fingers." We all knew that there were unpredictable dangers inherent in working with animals, so if we
wanted that in our lives, we had to except what inevitably might also happen tiger.
In the end, no one, especially
the men who'd been attacked, felt Sultan should be destroyed. Truth be told, his survival meant far more to the survival of
his species than any of what we did meant to the history of entertainment. In addition, we all knew that if he had wanted
to kill somebody he would have, no matter how many rules we all tried to live by.
But, we retired him for the season
and added some new regulations to the many pages of them we already had to make us feel better and went back to work.
we do the right thing? I think so. The truth is that you don't change a Leopard's spots or a Tiger's stripes. They are what
they are. And if we want creatures like Tigers to share our world and enhance our experience of life, we have to understand
that sometimes they'll be what they were born to be.
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