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The State

Exhibitors Rethink Wildlife Shows

A Bengal tiger's attack on a kindergartner last year has raised safety questions. The U.S. Humane Society opposes such displays.

January 06, 2003|Sally Ann Connell | Special to the Times

From a news standpoint, it doesn't get much bigger in the quaint suburban Santa Cruz County town of Scotts Valley than the day a Bengal tiger attacked a 6-year-old kindergarten boy at a school assembly.

The media descended, counselors were brought in to deal with students traumatized by the attack, and the 6-year-old boy had to have his head stapled 55 times to close the wound.

The staples have since been removed, and the boy returned to classes just two weeks after the Sept. 20 attack. But the attack lives on, not only on Web sites dedicated to animal attacks, but in a new self-examination by wildlife exhibitors in Northern California.

Sima, the female Bengal tiger owned by the Paso Robles-based Zoo to You, is off the school exhibition circuit. So are other large lions and tigers and bears owned by wildlife exhibitors in Northern California, under a voluntary agreement adopted by the groups in an effort to forestall adoption of harsher rules by federal and state regulators.

Although such exhibitors as Zoo to You are regulated and must have permits to show the animals in public, there are no rules against taking a large tiger into a school. Instead, the rules emphasize keeping control of such animals.

The two Zoo to You employees who were handling Sima during the incident are being prosecuted by the Santa Cruz County district attorney's office on two misdemeanor charges of improper control of the tiger.

They will reappear in court for a pretrial meeting Jan. 31, according to county Deputy Dist. Atty. Anna Rubalcava. The United States Department of Agriculture has fined Zoo to You $1,200 on similar charges, a spokesman said.

The family of the little boy named Dean, who returned briefly to school the day after the attack to reassure students, no longer grants interviews.

"I think they want him to just go to school in peace," said Steve Patterson, principal of Baymonte Christian School. "They don't want it to define him."

Zoo to You initially argued that the tiger had not attacked the boy but was only playing, and said the injury had been caused by medallions on the tiger's leash. Zoo to You owner David Jackson has not returned recent calls, but said after the attack that, however the incident happened, "We take full responsibility."

Zoo to You has been appearing in classrooms and assemblies for years. One of its two tigers has often been the high point at the end of the program. Young children are advised to stay very still when the tigers are brought into the room and the animals are allowed to pace within a few feet of spectators.

Some critics shake their heads in amazement that anybody allowed the exhibition of such an animal in a school to begin with, although they say wildlife exhibitions are proliferating nationally.

The Humane Society of the United States is particularly against such exhibits.

"It's terrible judgment for a school administrator to allow a tiger into a setting where children are present. I don't care what assurances the handler offers," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the national organization. "This is a wild animal genetically programmed to eat animals roughly the same size as people, especially little people."

Pacelle said animal refuge groups often take in malnourished exotic animals such as Sima that once were pets. But then the refuges need to exhibit the animals to pay the high costs of maintaining such animals.

"If you exhibit these animals, pretending that you can control them, then that in turn makes people think they would make a good pet," Pacelle said. "It's a cycle."

Pacelle's organization and other zoology groups estimate that as many as 5,000 Bengal tigers are in captivity in the U.S. as pets, in zoos and in wildlife refuges. Only an estimated 4,000 remain in the wild in India.

Full-grown Bengal tigers purportedly can be bought as pets through the Internet for $1,800, although cubs are considerably more expensive. Tigers are on all international lists of endangered species, although the Bengal is not as severely threatened as other subspecies.

California is one of 19 states with regulations against owning such tigers as pets, but Pacelle said his organization is trying to push federal legislation shutting down interstate commerce in such animals for the pet market.

Lt. Dennis Baldwin of the California Department of Fish and Game said that exotic animals in captivity take up a larger and larger amount of the department's time, but that he has never before faced an investigation like that of the Scotts Valley attack.

"The regulations put the responsibility on the exhibitor to control the animal at all times," he said. He said his department doesn't really get into the "common sense question of a tiger at a school," leaving that up to the exhibitors and the school.

Sima was 18 months old at the time of the attack and weighed 205 pounds, Baldwin said.

Patterson, the school principal, was sitting directly behind the kindergartner at an assembly to celebrate magazine sales for a school fund-raiser. When the boy was attacked, Patterson helped handlers pull the tiger off the boy by its leash.

The principal acknowledged that he knows nothing about tigers, but said that he knew Zoo to You had conducted hundreds of assemblies without incident.

"I mean, you have to trust them. They're the experts," Patterson said. But he said he remembered feeling surprised at the sheer size of the tiger.

"I still think about it, though. I remember how afraid I was for my kids," Patterson continued. "It looked to me like she was eating him. You don't really think any clear thoughts, you just know you have to do something."

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