'They're Natural Born Killers': Wild Animals in Captivity Inherently Dangerous

The aftermath of the tragic tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo that killed one and severely wounded two more has left us with many questions.

How did the tiger escape its confinement? Was it provoked? How could this happen? If it wasn't clear enough before, we must learn again: Wild animals are wild and capable, at any time, of aggressive, even fatal attacks.

"These animals are bored. They're smart, they're agile, they're emotional and they're working 24/7 to get out of their prison because that's what they're in: a prison cell," said Mark Bekoff, a former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado.

"I would not frankly want to live around a zoo that has big cats in it now — they're bound to get out, it's just going to happen," he said. "I think this is a warning flag for zoos — if they're going to keep big cats they need to be more careful."

'The Animal Does What the Animal Does'

We have seen this over and over, and not just with zoo animals.

Consider Moe, a chimpanzee who lived with St. James Davis and his wife, LaDonna, in their suburban Los Angeles home for decades, until one day in 1999, he attacked a police officer and a woman and was sent to live at an animal sanctuary. During a visit to the sanctuary in 2005, two chimps in an adjacent cage escaped and attacked Davis and nearly mauled him to death.


In 2004 after 10 years of working together, a 6,000-pound whale attacked his Sea World trainer, repeatedly diving on top of him and driving him underwater before he was rescued. There was a similar whale attack in 2006.

And a lion named Bongo attacked his trainer, Dave Salmoni, in front of an audience of thousands of school kids in Toronto in 1999.

"He just sort of grabbed a hold of my arm, tore out some muscles and taught me a very good lesson," said Salmoni. "You believe they love you, like you love them. And that's the best lesson to learn about these guys. They don't have the same feelings that we do. And they won't think twice … if they come to kill you."


Perhaps the most notable case involved Siegfried and Roy, the world-renowned Las Vegas performers that feature trained tigers. Roy was severely mauled on stage and nearly bled to death, attacked by a prized tiger he had raised and trained from a cub.

"He probably did something that he didn't know he was doing that tipped off something that's hard-wired into the cat's brain," said Bekoff. "In my courses that I teach in animal behavior I always tell people when you've got these hard-wired behavior patterns, like predatory behavior, or hunting, or maternal behavior, or anti-predatory behavior — it doesn't take much to trip them. And I myself, who supposedly knows a lot about carnivores, was almost killed by a mountain lion and almost killed by a wolf because I did something unbeknownst to me that triggered something really hard-wired in their brain."


"The animal does what the animal does," he added.

'This Is Their Space'

The predatory nature of animals in the wild is easier to understand, which makes the story of Timothy Treadwell even harder to fathom.

Treadwell felt he had befriended a group of wild grizzly bears. He lived among them, he could approach them and touch them and video shows Treadwell petting and talking to a bear cub that follows him around. "You are doing very well, you're a cute bear," he said. "They don't want to hurt me. They just need help."

Until the day when they killed him and his girlfriend, and then devoured them both.


"I think ultimately he was deluding himself, because he was bound to piss off a bear at some point, he was bound to do something with a bear that was going to end up in an attack," said Bekoff. "These animals are all risky, they're all dangerous. That's not to be negative about the animal, they're natural born killers and that's how they make their living."

A circus was in town in Honolulu when Tyke the elephant snapped. After killing her trainer, the elephant rampaged though the circus tent, made her way out onto the streets of the city and in the end, died in a hail of bullets. The scene horrified elephant lovers and advocates, and helped lead to the creation of an elephant sanctuary in rural Tennessee.


It is the last refuge for elephants that have become too aggressive for a zoo or a circus to manage. Some of the 19 elephants there have killed and live now isolated from the public, under the care of Carol Buckley and Scott Blais.

"Elephants shouldn't be in captivity," said Blais. "That's the bottom line. Even in a 2,700 acre preserve … we're barely touching their needs."

All contact with humans at the sanctuary is closely managed. But even in this environment, there is tragedy. More than a year ago, trusted trainer Joanna Burke was killed by an elephant named Winkie. Blais, who was there, says there were no warning signs.


"She turned and, you know, took three or four quick steps and was at Joanna before either of us could blink," he said. "I've always said to people, I hope you never see it, because if you did, you'll have a completely different respect for special boundaries. Because when they do respond, it is lightning fast. … You don't have time to blink. I think Joanna knew that Winkie was coming after her but there was no time to really do anything."

Burke is buried at the sanctuary.

"This is their space," said Blais. "We are entering their space. It is a risk that we take, that we are aware of."

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