Monday, November 17, 2008

Singapore Zoo: Man uncaged and dangerous

by Tay Yek Keak

CHILLS would surely have run down your spine when you saw the photograph: Two enormous white tigers hovering over a cowering man who would soon die.

The man had a pail over his head. It looked so strange, so horrific, so surreal, that you would have a hard time believing it happened.

But now, as the initial shock of the tragic incident at the Singapore zoo wears off, come the questions.

Could the man have been saved? Should the animals be destroyed? Can we make the enclosure harder to climb into? There may be some debate over these questions, but definitive conclusions can be found and the matter will eventually be put to rest.

But one perplexing question will remain, eluding all attempts to find an answer. It's an unpredictable time bomb which we cannot understand: Why did the man do what he did? We will never know. The victim took the answer to his grave.

The widely-held view is that he chose to kill himself in this fashion. That raises other questions. How can we stop a man from inflicting harm on himself? How do we prevent such self-destruction? If we extend these questions to a wider context, we could also ask: How do we stop a suicide bomber?

This is the essential problem: How can we save a human being from himself? It is a question as old as time, and one that will continue to challenge us in the future. Simply because the problem has no real answer.

More disturbingly, this incident at the zoo adds a new wrinkle to the age-old puzzle. A man walked to his doom, into a pen of deadly beasts. He did not kill himself with a man-made contraption, such as an onrushing train.

Often, we assume that wild creatures are unknowable; that their actions are unpredictable. But in this case, the animals acted on instinct; they reacted on impulse when they pounced upon the poor man.

Compared to him, the animals behaved more rationally than he did.

Elsewhere in the world, similar incidents involving humans have occurred in zoos. Last December, at the San Francisco Zoo, three men allegedly taunted a tiger which later escaped from its enclosure and killed one of them.

And early last month in Alice Springs, Australia, a little boy was caught on camera behaving with shocking cruelty towards animals.

He had broken into a reptile exhibit and was seen feeding live animals to a crocodile. He is only seven years old. Within the 30-minute killing spree, he also bashed several lizards to death with a rock. Most chillingly, in the video footage, the boy's face remained largely blank.

"It was as though he was playing a game," said the zoo's director.

These acts are unexplainable. By contrast, an animal is easy to understand. A tiger is a tiger. Aggravate it and it will do exactly what it does every time.

Yes, our zoo could do more to enhance the security of its enclosures. Not to keep the animals in but, ironically, to keep the humans out. It is quite illogical that it has come to this.

But this is necessary because of one thing that will never change. The nature of the beast may be explainable, but the nature of man is something that we can never understand.

Man uncaged and dangerous
AsiaOne, Singapore