SF Zoo’s public feedings of big cats praised, condemned by experts
Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Thrilling. Barbaric. Primal. Anachronistic. Awe-inspiring. Unnerving. Sick.
Those are some of the adjectives used to describe the public feeding of lions and tigers at the San Francisco Zoo — a venerable ritual that has stopped with the closing of the zoo’s Lion House after a gruesome attack on a keeper three days before Christmas, observed by scores of visitors.
In the wake of the Dec. 22 mauling of Lori Komejan, whose right arm was chewed up just after mealtime by a Siberian tiger named Tatiana, the future of the Lion House is unclear.
“It will be closed until further notice,” said zoo spokesman Paul Garcia.
Over the decades, generations of Bay Area residents have watched the big cats devour chunks of horsemeat in their cages inside the Lion House. The public feeding occurs six days a week at 2 p. m., when the four lions and three tigers are summoned from their outdoor enclosures. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the menu includes dead rabbits as well.
The event is one of the zoo’s most popular attractions — and increasingly one of its most controversial.
“It was the highlight for me,” recalled 72-year-old Bob Paterson of Rocklin (Placer County), who grew up in the city.
“One time when I was a kid, I walked 5 miles to the zoo,” said the retired PG&E employee. “I got there at 2 p. m. It was raining, and I was the only one there. When one lion roars, they all roar. And I said to myself, ‘I’m in Africa.’ ”
He visited that continent in 1978 and 1984 and will return in May — all prompted by his Lion House experiences.
Other zoo patrons have come away with far different memories.
“It was barbaric,” said Shannon Rizzo, who lives in Lafayette and homeschools her four children. “It seemed like something out of the Middle Ages. A public gathering for something that’s kind of private. It would be OK if we were unseen observers and it were less of a circus.”
Katie Harrar, an event producer from San Francisco, said she was ambivalent about the feedings before Tatiana’s encounter with Komejan but now is convinced that they should stop.
“I think we’re beyond that, honestly,” Harrar said. “I want to learn, but not to the extent of watching somebody toss a carcass and watch the animal go nuts over it. It’s old-school, and it’s not appropriate anymore.”
About three years ago, Harrar dropped by the Lion House with her 1-year-old niece, who was in a stroller, and noticed that the lions and tigers were eyeing the small children in the crowd as if they were a “potential meal.”
“It was really disconcerting and unnerving,” she said. “It got me thinking, ‘Who’s really watching whom?’ ”
Harrar wasn’t imagining things. Martine Colette, founder of the Wildlife WayStation refuge for wild and exotic animals in Southern California, said, “Small children are always a temptation for large predators because they’re like moving hors d’oeuvres.”
Although the pros and cons of the public feedings could be debated endlessly — in terms of their effects on keepers, onlookers and animals — most experts agree with Colette.
“We don’t allow children under 7,” said Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist with the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas. “It’s just the size of the kids. They’re inherently looked on as prey.”
Dorfman, 69, said he has had more than 35,000 unprotected contacts with exotic cats over the years. The value of public feedings of lions and tigers depends on how they’re done, he said.
“I would be concerned that it would condition kids to think it’s OK to get close and to feed them through the cage,” he said.
Dorfman frequently walks into the habitats in the Texas sanctuary after assessing the mood of the residents. Last week, he hand-fed two tigers 40 meatballs apiece.
“I am much safer doing it in their presence than I would be trying to do it through the fence,” Dorfman said.
The reason is simple — they’re cats. “They just want to reach out and grab something,” he said. “They don’t associate the object coming through the fence with that person.”
When Tatiana reached under the cage in the Lion House and seized the hands of Komejan, a 46-year-old single mother who lives on the Peninsula, she probably meant no harm, Dorfman said.
Another veteran of unprotected contact with big cats was less conflicted than Dorfman about the public feedings in the Lion House.
“I think they should never have been permitted,” said Rich Menefee, a former keeper at Marine World who runs a manufacturing company in Santa Cruz County.
“The very same tigers that I literally rode around like ponies were the same tigers that tried to rip me apart at feeding time,” he said via e-mail. “Feeding time was never observed by guests. It was an awe-inspiring experience.”
San Francisco might have the only zoo in North America where big cats are fed in public, said Ronald Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn., and head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for tigers. He said a few institutions have started introducing parts of whole carcasses, but most have become a “little too sterile” and rely on food processed in factories that carries no risk of disease transmission.
“It’s very easy to clean afterward,” Tilson said. “There isn’t rabbit fur flying everywhere, getting stuck in the drains. But the process of chewing and gnawing and crunching bones is good for the mouth and makes it closer to what real feeding was like. It’s very common in Europe.”
One proponent of public feeding is Carole Baskin, chief executive officer of Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary with more than 100 felines in Tampa, Fla.
“We do public feedings to show people that the cats they may have seen elsewhere on leashes, doing tricks or posing for photos, become entirely different animals in the presence of food,” Baskin said. “When a person sees a tiger crunch through a cow femur like it was a potato chip, they can visualize what some part of their body would look like in the cat’s mouth.”
She is hoping that such visceral displays will end the demand for big cats as props or pets and put breeders out of business.
Komejan, meanwhile, is still recovering at San Francisco General Hospital, although officials won’t release any details. The assault on her was rare in San Francisco Zoo history but not unprecedented.
On March 16, 1935, a mountain lion named Bruce attacked San Francisco police Patrolman Walter Ames in what was then known as the Fleishhacker Zoo. His partner, Officer Norman White, reacted. The next day, a front-page Chronicle story described what happened:
“There was a savage roar as a tawny paw lashed out, caught Ames’ coat sleeve and drew his arm into the cage. In a moment Officer Ames’ whole hand was in the lion’s mouth and he could feel the teeth tear and grind.
“Up ran Officer White, whipped out his service pistol and fired — once, twice, three times. The jaws relaxed as the huge beast rolled over on its side dead.”
In March 1949, a polar bear called Mischa crushed the arm of Arthur McKinney, a house painter who was tossing some lump sugar his way. The bear finally let go — he wanted to knock his cage mate away from the treat.