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How high? Tiger attacks spark wall worries

Explosive encounters with tigers, including a fatal Christmas attack in San Francisco, lead experts to question whether they have underestimated the cats.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A tiger lurked in the tall grass at a park in India as gamekeepers tried to shoot it with a dart gun and missed. The animal suddenly sprang from the grass, sailed through the air and took a swipe at a man sitting on an elephant’s back.

The man lost three fingers.

“I could never imagine that a tiger could so effortlessly leap from the ground on to an adult elephant’s head, which is at least 12 feet above the ground,” Vivek Menon, executive director of Wildlife Trust of India, said of the 2004 attack, a video of which has been circulating on YouTube.

That attack — along other examples of explosive encounters with tigers — are stoking a debate that began after a 350-pound (160-kilogram) Siberian tiger climbed over the 12½-foot (3.8-meter) wall around its pen at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day and mauled three visitors, killing one.

Among the questions experts are now asking: How high can tigers jump? And have zoos and sanctuaries dangerously underestimated tigers?

That is to say: Are the walls high enough?

“We are evaluating that right now,” said Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association, which has about 35 members, only a few of which have big cats. The ASA accredits sanctuaries and in the past recommended 12-foot (3.7-meter) fences.

Similarly, Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which accredits the nation’s zoos, may adjust its 16.4-foot (5-meter) wall-height recommendation for tigers once it learns fully what happened in San Francisco, spokesman Steve Feldman said.

In San Francisco, the wall was well below that AZA minimum. But several other major U.S. zoos appear to meet or exceed the standards, with high walls topped in many cases with electrified wire or pronounced overhangs to prevent tigers from pulling themselves up and over the side.

Just how high can a tiger leap?
Animal experts said they aren’t aware of any hard numbers about the precise leaping ability of tigers. They said it depends on the animal and whether it has been taunted, as may have happened in the San Francisco tragedy. But Feldman said his organization’s 16.4-foot figure was based on the opinions of a group of experts.

There are well-publicized examples of tigers’ phenomenal leaping ability.

In an incident at a national park in Nepal in 1974, an enraged Bengal tiger protecting her cubs mauled a researcher who had climbed into a tree. The tiger managed to climb onto a 15-foot-high (4.6-meter-high) limb.

“She just went right up and she didn’t have much to hold onto. She clearly made that jump without much problem,” said Melvin Sunquist, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida and an expert on tigers.

Sunquist, who published an account of the Nepal attack in his book “Tiger Moon: Tracking the Great Cats of Nepal,” said he wasn’t surprised by the news that a tiger had gotten out of its cage in San Francisco.

“I saw what a tigress can do,” he said. “If they can get a purchase on anything, they can get up there.”

Prepare for the abnormal
Dale Miquelle, director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s program in Russia, said he has seen tigers do many unusual things, such as climbing to the top of large trees when incensed — something tigers don’t normally do.

“What animals normally do, and what they can do, are often very different things,” Miquelle said.

The AZA said it has 216 accredited members with 258 tigers among them. Only five of them were born in the wild, and tigers in captivity generally cannot jump as high as those that are in top condition from hunting in the wild.

Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist and chairman of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Texas, oversees 24 tigers at his sanctuary, including an 11-year-old Bengal-Siberian tiger that weighs about 550 pounds (250 kilograms) and extends about 11 feet (3.4 meters) paw-to-paw when it stretches like a housecat.

Dorfman said his tigers have never tried to scale their fences, but warned: “With provocation, they’re capable of unbelievable aggression and power. These cats are a combination of strong instincts, strong emotion and no inhibition.”

Zoo visitors running back and forth can resemble prey to a tiger. Throwing objects at a tiger or dangling something can also trigger its predatory instincts.

“First and foremost, people need to be educated. We need to respect them accordingly,” said Jonathan Kraft, who runs Keepers of the Wild in Arizona, which has more than 20 tigers. In the San Francisco escape, “I would bet my reputation that the animal was taunted.”