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Can we get along?

Some might call it the Doolittle Delusion, the desire to bond with wild animals. But, as J. Michael Kennedy and Christopher Reynolds report, experts wonder: Are the folks who think they can cozy up to creatures exceptionally sensitive or plain stupid?

October 21, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy and Christopher Reynolds

ALL THE MAN JET-SKIING ALONG QUEBEC'S GATINEAU RIVER wanted was a big and unusual wild animal as a pet. But to claim the cute bear cub he saw paddling in the current last month, he figured he'd have to tame it a bit. So he ran it over. Then he roared around and rammed it again. And again.

As the mother bear watched from shore, the man swooped in and grabbed the weakened cub by a leg and, to further wear it out, dunked the creature underwater. And dunked it again. Then he tied it with a rope as he raced for the public dock, where Canadian wildlife officials intervened.

They didn't charge the man in what they're calling the "Buddy Bear" case. Nor, however, did they let him keep the cub, which is recovering in a wildlife sanctuary -- yet another victim in a type of story that lately seems commonplace: A human and animal come together in a tale that is supposed to glow with warmth but instead takes a bizarre or chilling twist.

Increasingly, wildlife experts and veteran outdoor types are shaking their heads at what might be labeled the Doolittle Delusion -- the belief that with the right attitude, it's possible for a human to bond with a wild animal in the manner of Hugh Lofting's fictional doctor, whose knack for sensitive rapport led to spirited, interspecies rap sessions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Siegfried & Roy -- Articles in various sections of The Times have been in conflict about the weight of the tiger that mauled illusionist Roy Horn on Oct. 3. Times reports have given its weight as 300, 550 and 600 pounds. Siegfried & Roy's publicist and Las Vegas animal control officials said the tiger weighed about 380 pounds.

Recent news clips reveal that socializing with lions and tigers and bears often turns unpleasant. Within the space of a few days this month, a 600-pound tiger dragged illusionist Roy Horn off a Las Vegas stage by the neck, and grizzlies in Alaska's Katmai National Park killed photographer Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, as they attempted to live among them. And then there was the tale of Antoine Yates, a New York cabby hospitalized after a run-in with a 400-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger.

The creature, which Yates had apparently taken in as a cub, had grown so big that it had taken over an apartment in a Harlem housing project. To capture "Ming," a SWAT team rappelled down the side of the building and shot the big cat with a tranquilizer dart. Inside, authorities also found a 5-foot-long alligator.

Yates, whose injuries were relatively minor, told reporters he was keeping the creatures because he wanted "to show the whole world that we all can get along." The tiger, he told the New York Times, "was like my brother, my best friend."

Naturalist David Quammen, whose most recent book is "Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind," puzzles at the paradox of people's "ancient compulsion ... to bask in the magnificence" of the creatures they most fear. "Some people treat these things as accessories to their identity. And that's true of animals generally, not just dangerous ones.... People say, 'I've got a great big scarlet macaw in my living room. I must really love the wild.' Well, wrong."

Yet such interspecies infatuations have fueled a wildlife black market that's only getting bigger -- and the more dangerous the animal the better. The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are more captive big cats living in this country -- as many as 10,000 -- than all of those living in the wild in Asia. People have as many as 300,000 wolves or wolf-dog mixes roaming their homes or yards. And in 2000, people owned 9 million reptiles, including snakes, as pets. As many as 90% of these lizards and serpents die each year. But fatality cuts both ways in such relationships.

In 1999, authorities entered a Van Nuys trailer home and found a menagerie of poisonous snakes, piranhas and other exotic animals. In the middle of the living room lay Anita Finch, curled in a fetal position. Her hand, pierced by two small wounds, clutched a note: "Northridge Hospital ask for ICU." The bite marks suggested she had been killed by one of her snakes, probably a rare, foot-long Gaboon viper.

"The lesson," says Richard Farinato, who monitors captive wild animals for the Humane Society, "is don't try to turn wild animals into stuffed toys."

Common sense is not always the human species' strong suit, though, and men and women often behave in ways that fall somewhere between risky and stupid, Farinato says, offering as evidence the photos he's seen of people grinning beatifically while standing within charging distance of bison, elk and bears.

Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., is not amused by such naivete.

"We have, as a people, become ignorant of animals and animal behavior," he says. "Yet at the same time, we yearn to be close to animals and wildlife. It's an odd combination, and it has some dire consequences."

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