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When Tiger Leaps

A tiger's soul-spark flares in the madness of captivity.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

A YouTube video has been making its rounds on the internet. It is brief—less than a minute. The clip shows a young woman seated in front of a Plexiglas-enclosed tiger exhibit. She is smiling, posed, presumably for her family or friends’ cameras. Unbeknownst to her, the white tiger photo op behind her is on the move. He is silently approaching, step by restrained step.

Alerted by her friends, the girl turns to look and as she does so, the tiger leaps, arms open in clawed embrace, only, we are informed, “to be stopped in its tracks by protective glass at the Russian zoo.” The young woman screams and the audience lights up with laughter, pleased at their little joke.

A British newspaper reporting on the footage goes on to describe an earlier incident which occurred in Japan. A second video shows a yellow-jacketed boy standing in front of an African lion exhibit at the Chiba Zoological Park. Like the Russian girl, the boy is facing out, his back to the big cat, which suggests that he too was posing for the camera. Like the tiger, the lion is just a prop. Suddenly, the lion charges the youngster. The boy escapes a dire fate only because, as one expert asserts, the "firm glass wall held the lion inside his enclosure, surely frustrating his innate instincts.” Tigers and lions are, after all, “natural wild predators and the child in this video, especially when turning his back to the massive feline, becomes prey in the animal’s eyes.”

Once again, tigers, lions, and other carnivores have been reduced to cartoons, fur-covered unthinking killing machines running on pure, raw instinct. Reporters and experts alike assume that the big cats were bent on catching and consuming the humans behind the glass because, of course, tigers and lions just can’t escape their base nature.

But a moment’s refection beyond mindless adherence to myth clearly reveals something else, some one else. It is hard to believe that these highly intelligent, highly sensitive, highly perceptive individuals who, neuropsychologists confirm, have brains and minds and associated capacities comparable to our own, are not keenly aware of the impenetrable nature of the imprisoning glass barrier. The existence of the enclosure, glass or not, is very real, very tangible to the tiger.

Most days, the tiger

paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center

Russian Academy of Sciences
Source: Russian Academy of Sciences

Psychiatrists call this unsettling pacing “stereotypy,” one of the few ways a tortured body can temporarily cope with the madness of captivity. The tiger lives in a vacuum of concrete under the predatory gaze and control of humans, some of whom can, with just a word, condemn the big cat to death. Baby animals, be they elephants, apes, or tigers, are a lucrative draw. The entertainment provided by a big scary adult only goes so far. After endless years of solitude and deprivation in a tiny enclosure, even the will of the mighty tiger, Panthera tigris , eventually "stands paralyzed." So the lion, tiger, or giraffe is “surplused” – sent to the dark recesses of the zoo to live out life in a still tinier cage, or to be killed and sold in parts for various human uses.

So why, might we ask, did the two cats stalk and lunge at the humans outside the glass knowing that they would fail to catch their “prey”? Because, most days

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

But on that day, for some reason, some spark inside catches fire, his soul re-ignites. Perhaps the graceful form of the Russian girl stirs a genetic memory of a time when the tiger’s ancestors padded through the Siberian snow or Indian jungle unseen by all except the watchful thrush or babbler. For a second, the human outside the glass takes on the appearance of an unsuspecting deer and

the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

Yes! For a split second, the tiger imagines he is stalking in ancestral forests, the air singing with cold, the sky piercing through entwined hands of tree branches. For a moment, the prison walls vanish, he is transported, he leaps. . .The hard glass punches back at his body and his claws, not even fully bared, slide along the man-made pane of ice and

plunges into the heart and is gone.

This is the life of a captive-held tiger. He is no bloodthirsty villain; only a soul dying, gasping and grasping for any chance of freedom.

Literature Cited

Atkin, C. 2016. Tiger caught on camera crashing into glass as it pounces on zoo visitor. The Independent, retrieved June 12, 2016 from

Bradshaw, G.A. in press. Judgement by Tooth and Claw: Understanding Carnivore Minds and Experience . Yale University Press.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1902. Der Panter: In Jardin des Plantes , Pari.

Tiger pounces at woman on other side of glass. YouTube, retrieved June 12, 2016 from