Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Eye of the Tiger

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
-William Blake
My real purpose in visiting Harbin was to see the snow and ice sculptures, good art teacher that I am.  Good traveler that I am, I was not about to visit a city without seeing everything it had to offer.  I have been experimenting with how I plan my travels this year.  It started with Easter Island - I wasn't going to buy the whole Chile Lonely Planet when I was only going to one, small island, so I bought the digital chapter, printed it, and brought it along.  It worked pretty well but I felt like a fool, paging through the loose prints as I was going along.  So after I bought the guides for Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, I decided I needed a notebook to assemble the stuff I wanted to take with me.  Unfortunately, it was after I bought those two that I realized I wanted to go to Harbin as well, and buying single PDF chapters was starting to get expensive, so I printed off the Wikitravel page for Harbin and used it, instead.  This was great, because it was free, but not as satisfactory as LP, still, because it doesn't include info about wifi at restaurants and whatever.

At any rate, it was while I was looking through these pages that I was reminded that Harbin has a Siberian Tiger Preserve.  I've read Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost, and he talks about it, but I'd forgotten, so I quickly put it at the top of The List of Things I Must Do in Harbin.

I am just as far from a biologist as you can get, as Socrates would be glad to point out if I still talked to him.  So I don't know if all the cries of animal cruelty you will read on Trip Advisor are justified or not.  The Siberian tigers, at any rate, seemed pretty happy with their lot in life.  It beats being extinct, I reckon.  I'm not sure if these guys could ever return to the wild after being fed three square meals a day by a bus that chugged along, plopping out gobs of raw meat for them, but that might be a completely moot point.  They do try to train them for it, but I don't know if their instincts would survive the easy life or not.  It was amazing to see them so close, and how similar they sometimes act to domestic cats.  Case in point: the dangling chicken.
What kind of animal park would deny you a chance to feed the animals?  (The American kind, that's what kind, but I'm hardly one to talk - my pinky finger narrowly escaped an encounter with an ostrich at a very young age).  There are a variety of animals you can dangle out of the enclosed passageway to tempt the tigers, but the chickens are the cheapest, and that is what one of the tourists in my group bought.  Now it was difficult to ignore the terrified squawks of the pathetic old hen.  She looked a little rough around the edges, so I tried to reassure myself
that she had, no doubt, lived a long and full life.  If I could ignore the poor chicken's terror, it was easy to see my sweet little Barnabas in the big fierce tiger - the way he jumped up to try and get his snack was akin to teasing my cat with a toy mouse.
We really out to be astounded that we let cats live with us.  Thousands of years of domesticity, and they're still not that far removed from the wild.  (Don't believe me?  Check this out...)
But then, even knowing this tiger has an instinct-driven need to kill me and eat me,  he was so fuzzy, and so cute rolled over on his back like that, that if I could go down there and give his belly a good rub I just.  might.  do it.  Whether that's insane or not.  What can I say?  I'm a cat lover. 
And speaking of cat lovers....uhh, yeah, enough said.

All that aside, in the end I saw cruelty that could not be ignored or explained away.  There were pens toward the end with other kinds of big cats.  It is strange to think of a tiger living and thriving in the snow, but that's exactly what Siberians do.  I can't think of many other cats that are built for cold temperatures - maybe bobcats or cougars?  I can think of lots of cats that AREN'T cold weather cats.

Leopards aren't.

White tigers aren't (they seem like they would be, I know, but in fact they're a mutation of the Bengal Tiger).

Lions aren't.  This is actually a liger, a cross between a lion and a tiger for those few people who haven't seen Napoleon Dynamite, but they had regular lions, as well.  This poor guy was shivering as he lay huddled in the corner on the cold hard ground.

And jaguars aren't. 

Maybe the state-of-the-art cat house at the Doorly Zoo in Omaha has spoiled me.  Surely the slack-jawed yokels who were shouting at the tigers trying to get a reaction out of them are not the same people running the establishment.  Surely a tiger park knows how to take care of its investment, and wouldn't endanger such very expensive animals by exposing them to temperatures they can't handle.

I hope not, at any rate.


  1. Muchos gracias go to Shaggy, who set me straight on the identities of some of the big cats. And educated me... the leopard "has the broadest geographic range of any big cat. A frozen and mummified Leopard was found at 15,000 feet on Mt kilimanjaro. Why was a leopard that high? You'd have to ask the leopard."

  2. I just read this article - seemed relevant so I thought I'd share it:,0,6293775.htmlstory