On September 24, 1980, two days after a Siberian Tiger killed his best friend Bob Wilson, my brother Jim stood in a driving English storm outside his trailer home at Howlett’s Zoo Park and howled his horror to the Canterbury countryside.
As if the night winds would carry his threat across the Kent County wood, he screamed for zoo owner John Aspinall to answer for Bob’s death. Ride of the Valkyries played at high volume through the open trailer windows. Streams of rain brought into sharp relief the anguish on his face. I doubt I will again witness such a terrifying, and heart-rending, sight.
The tiger, Zeya, had jumped an 11-foot fence from an adjoining holding area while Bob and other keepers conducted a routine cleaning inside her secured main enclosure. Bob yelled for the others to run clear. Zeya leapt at him, clamped her jaws on his throat and dragged him to a pond. Jim ran to the enclosure with a rifle. He was too late; Bob was dead. And he could not focus his eyes to shoot the tiger for the sight of his best friend’s mauled and mangled body. Zeya was later destroyed.
A month earlier, on August 21, Bob had tried vainly to save a fellow keeper, 27 year-old Brian Stocks, the futile blows of his broomstick landing like so many flies on Zeya’s body. Bob decided that day to resign. He spent the following weeks training a successor to care for the animals that were his charges. Bob too lived on the zoo grounds. His death came the week he was to return home to Saltwood until he and Jim raised enough money to start a refuge for smuggled and tortured monkeys. He was 28. I attended Bob’s funeral. Aspinall was first to leave.
John Aspinall, who died in 2000, was famous throughout Great Britain as a gambling house owner, and for his practice of wrestling and playing with the most dangerous of the animals. According to Jim, Aspinall especially enjoyed entertaining zoo visitors with his demonstrations of the tameness of his Siberian tigers and mountain gorillas.
Zeya was a favorite. Photos of Aspinall with the full-grown tiger in her enclosure were legend. He used his celebrity to promote his belief that animals, no matter how wild, are our friends, if we behave properly. He promoted it to tens of thousands of zoo visitors, hundreds of zookeepers, journalists and television reporters. It was, of course, a stunt, a fabrication, a lie.
But Aspinall’s big lie followed in the long tradition of circuses, carnivals, Las Vegas acts, and county fairs that peddle wild animals as our companions, playthings, and objects of amusement. It is a notion engrained in our culture and values, and re-enforced by the entertainment and advertising industries. If things go badly while a wild animal is purposefully confined in captivity, it is an “accident,” often “human error.”
So easily does society accept this grand illusion that Aspinall avoided prosecution or penalty for the deaths of Bob and Brian, and for the death of keeper Darren Cockrill, 27, killed by a Howlett’s elephant on February 6, 2000, and for the death of keeper Trevor Smith, 32, killed by a Howlett’s tiger on November 13, 1994 while horrified zoo visitors watched. Separate incidents involving attacks on Howlett’s patrons by a tiger and chimpanzee were settled privately
[F]or the extra thrill and income, the roughly 100 circuses that were privatized after the Soviet collapse routinely allow a relatively tame member of one of these species to stroll out into the entrance hall during breaks for photographs. At the Nikulin Circus a picture with a tiger costs $18, and one with a bear is $15. The approximately 70 circuses that are still run by the state have prohibited such practices since 2010.
Boris E. Maikhrovsky, a deputy director in charge of animal acts at Rosgostsirk, the state circus company, and a trainer of sea lions and penguins, said putting children beside predators was inherently unsafe . . . Mr. Maikhrovsky is advocating in the Russian Senate for a law that would prohibit taking children’s pictures with predatory animals.
For most of us, the foolishness of pairing children with tigers is obvious on its face. And American laws would not allow it. But what of its underlying ethic? Isn’t it part of the same mythology that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus promotes when it features an elephant balanced on a stool, or the Moscow Circus promotes when it rolls out a brown bear riding a tricycle?
At the root of troubling stories such as Howlett’s Zoo and Nikulin Circus is an ethic that wild animals are on the planet to amuse us, and are happiest when doing so. Neither of us is the better for the belief. Too often people are harmed, and the animals that cause the harm are killed.
Sadly, Aspinall’s is a durable ethic. Even the Op Ed author’s engrained, cultural bias shows when he writes of “relatively tame” tigers, presumably hand-picked by Nikulin Circus for the special responsibility of posing with children. As my brother Jim said of the Howlett’s tigers, “They’re tame until they’re not. Then, run . . . or shoot.”
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Jim Cronin went on to create Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset, England. One of the most popular zoos in Great Britain, its collection of hundreds of primates is composed of animals rescued from the black market, laboratories, illegal private collections, circuses, carnivals and more. Its remarkable design and landscaping allow the animals to live in their own habitats and to re-form into troops, engage in play, mate and enjoy life as they should, despite their history as former addicts, tobacco smokers, photographer’s props, laboratory experiments and worse. Jim’s Animal Planet show, Monkey Business, which followed him and his wife Dr. Alison Cronin as they tracked smugglers and rescued and rehabbed monkeys from all over the world, was one of the most watched in the channel’s history in Europe and Asia. In 2006, he was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II for services to animal welfare. Jim died of liver cancer in 2007 at age 55 .