Wild Ways

The white tiger is not a terrorist

Tigers are, simply, tigers, whether golden or white. You cannot go up to an adult tiger without consequences.

 |  Wild Ways  |  5-minute read |   03-10-2014
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A tiger, white.

Quite like the proverbial green-eyed "witch", or a scaly garden reptile that looks like a dinosaur, a white tiger-blue-eyed, and pale, is a creature never quite understood. And as follows from this lack of understanding, it is a creature adored, and reviled, in equal portions.

A week ago, a young man climbed into, or fell into, a moat. That moat was home to a tiger, who had lived its life in the Delhi Zoo. Despite warnings, despite railings, despite common sense, the man was close enough for the terrible tragedy to unfold - he lost his life to the world's largest big cat.

The tiger is an efficient hunter; its jaws and teeth and bounds function like a well-oiled, non-hesitating mechanism. But does that mean the tiger is also a monster?

Let's qualify this further: is a tiger killing a man it does not know, after being goaded by clamorous bystanders who pelted it with stones, a terrorist waiting for an opportune moment to unleash "terror"?

If the human jury is to be believed, this tiger, a resident of the Delhi Zoo, is indeed a terror.

To some others, who have lasciviously watched an amateur video of the accident, the tiger is a source of horror. Spreading their sour schadenfreude have been headlines and hashtags proclaiming #whitetigerterror in the #DelhiZoo.

We need a moment of silence for falling prey to the abuse of hashtags, which summarise complex and multi-dimensional experiences into three-words-strung-together. But the question here is larger.

The Delhi Zoo tragedy has made national and international headlines. A week on, the press is still picking up the story. The emphasis, mostly, is on the fact that something horrible has happened (rightly so), and that the tiger is a source of terror (which must be contested).

The second emphasis is the gaze on the animal, the way the animal has been treated on purely superficial grounds: it is a great object of curiousity and/or revulsion: the fact that the tiger is not tawny or golden, it is white.

The white tigers of Rewa were a mythical mystery until it was proved that these are simply genetic misnomers, blue-eyed and milky-bodied. Being too conspicuous, it is most likely, they cannot survive in the wild. Zoos have religiously bred white tigers simply for the consumption of an eager human audience, one that has placed the albino animal as the "other".

Visitors crowd over white tigers, white peacocks, the occasional white deer, seen as the oddities or freaks of nature. Thus, apart from inferring that the stressed tiger was a source of terror, coverage stresses on the whiteness, the strangeness, the other-ness, of the tiger.

For decades now, children's stories have had animals as protagonists, as good or sometimes as evil. In Disney's much-acclaimed Lion King, the animals are anthropomorphised to display ugliness and beauty by human standards. Simba's family, the first family of the forest, gleam like blow-dried mannequins, while the evil lion Scar and his attendant hyenas are scrawny, unclean and pathetic-looking.

In this Disney-fication of animals, and in attributing them with wholly human-mimicking characteristics, some seem to forget that a real tiger is not a Disney creation.

Tigers are, simply, tigers, whether golden or white. Whether genetically "freaky" and white-looking, or golden like fire, you cannot go up to an adult tiger without consequences. In a Disney movie or any another similar film, if you pray to a tiger, it may spare your life, with a silver tear running down its noble, shining face. Conversely, like Scar, the villain of Lion King, the tiger may sneer and kill you with even more relish to reject your prayer.

In real life, it is pertinent to add, a tiger will do neither, simply because he is not an animated object who heeds prayers, especially when rained on with stones. Coverage that suggest the young man was begging the tiger for his life, a prayer the tiger rejected, is thus aimless. 

Last year, in a ground-breaking order, the Central Zoo Authority banned dolphinariums, and in the process did away with maiden proposals for keeping dolphins in captivity.The argument the CZA made is that dolphins, with complex and strong family structures, with frolic and play and bonding, are "non-human persons".

In a sense this was ascribing the marine mammal with an identity that likens it to humans. In another sense, the "non-human" bit reinforces that the dolphin is specifically not a human, and thus expectations of "humaneness" may not apply.

Tigers, shouted at, pelted at, poked or provoked, whether white or golden, ask for none of these things. They did not put in an application to compete with human-centred, and human-likened, morality.

Perhaps the question now is not whether animals can compete with human intelligence or moralities; but rather, the mirror they hold up for us, about being human.


Neha Sinha Neha Sinha @nehaa_sinha

Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist, and lover of the weird, wonderful, wordy and wild. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society and her views are personal.

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