From the time we are children, our imaginations are filled with animals. We surround ourselves with furry companions—dogs and cats and rabbits and gerbils—that we imagine admire and love us. And when we want to test our limits and step up to examine our true place in the ancient pecking order, we surround ourselves with wild animals. We swim with dolphins, dangle in shark-infested waters, and have our yearbook pictures taken with purring white tigers. According to psychologist Chilla Bulbeck, who studies human relationships with dolphins and monkeys, zoo attendance “far exceeds that at professional sporting events; the amount of money spent by pet owners on their animals exceeds that spent by parents on baby food; and the amount of mail received by the U.S. Congress regarding the protection of animals exceeds that received in relation to Vietnam. It is claimed that wildlife programs attract higher audience ratings than soap operas, and natural history books are always high on bestseller lists.”
What we see when we look into an animal’s eyes—entertainment, sport, friend, food—depends on the particular way in which we’ve mythologized them. We project upon animals our fears and hopes. We manipulate them to our wills. And sometimes when we look, we see ourselves. As Schopenhauer wrote in 1851, “In the heart of every man there lies a wild beast which only waits for an opportunity to storm and rage, in its desire to inflict pain on others, or, if they stand in his way, to kill them.”
On the way to the grocery store or the boring nine-to-five job, it may seem as though the wild beast has been ultimately tamed, that Americans have clipped the fringes of wildness from our lives. Instead of, say, chasing down and killing a wildebeest, we get our thrills vicariously, through “extreme” television shows. When it comes to wildlife programs in particular, old gents like Marlin Perkins from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom have been replaced by showmen like Jack Hanna and the late Steve Irwin, who delight in scaring us with their lighthearted to deadly wrestling with the natural world. Our lust to touch the untamed has taken us full circle it seems, to a time of gladiatorial combat with lions and bears, even if we are merely distant spectators. Perhaps people like Cynthia Gamble, people who own exotic animals, are not content simply to watch. More than most, they wish to skate along the thin ice of the pond.
Tammy Quist is another of Gamble’s neighbors in Sandstone, a town that seems to be a sort of wild-pet mecca (yet another neighbor, Lee Greenly, owns the wildlife park where country singer Troy Lee Gentry shot and killed a captive bear named Cubby). Quist has worked for years with large cats, but she doesn’t defend private ownership of lions and tigers. Her experiences instead have convinced her that the practice must end. Though Quist acknowledged that there are responsible owners, she said, “the cons outweigh the pros” and too often animals are mistreated or keepers are injured. Just weeks before Gamble’s death, Quist had expanded her nonprofit retirement home for rescued cats, called The Wildcat Sanctuary, from a ten-acre facility in Isanti County to a forty-acre spread in Sandstone. Unlike Gamble’s struggling business, which was concerned with showing animals in action films, wildlife videos, commercials, and other “edutainment” settings, Quist’s rescue operation is thriving. She reports that in 2005 alone, the Sanctuary rescued one hundred wild cats.
Many animals aren’t so lucky. Ask groups like PETA why they oppose the private ownership of exotic pets and they’ll say that when an animal like a tiger attacks a person, perhaps because of the actions of the person, perhaps because of the animal’s very nature, it’s the cat that pays the price. Often they are euthanized, such as after Gamble’s death. As of April, according to the PETA website circuses.com, big cats had killed seventeen people in as many years in the U.S. Most were professionals working with the animals; at least two were amateurs posing for photographs, a practice banned by the USDA. Since 1990, the site says, there have been 426 non-fatal injuries involving captive wildlife (including primates, bears, and elephants). These injuries often result from people sticking their arms where they don’t belong or idiotically breaking into zoo enclosures. PETA materials state that “70 big cats have been killed because of these [human-related] incidents.”
Mary Hartman, a Rochester woman whose young daughter was bitten in 2001 and dragged into the woods by a neighbor’s pet tiger, believes that keeping undomesticated animals “creates the illusion that you’re getting a piece of the wild.” The illusion, she said, disguises the reality, where animals are abused or neglected by people who don’t know how to care for them. Nor, she said, do these owners have much regard for the safety of other people.
Ironically, wildlife specialists note that while tigers are in danger of extinction in the wild, the captive U.S. population is reaching “epidemic” proportions. India is home to the largest number of wild tigers, with just under five thousand. It’s estimated that there are three times as many in our country, not including those in official zoos. Private owners argue that the numbers, which are based on scant information, have been exaggerated, yet it’s generally accepted among zoo officials that there are fifteen to twenty-five thousand privately-kept tigers living in the U.S. (the Humane Society of the United States puts the number at ten thousand). There are no official estimates for Minnesota, but Tammy Quist receives more than thirty calls per month from locals who can no longer handle their exotic cats.
Statistics like these led the state, in 2005, to enact a statute that prohibits “purchasing, obtaining, or owning certain exotic animals … ” The list includes all cats (except domestic), bears, all non-human primates, and any hybrid cross between these animals. The law doesn’t apply to people with USDA licenses, such as research facilities, breeders, dealers, and zoos. Nor would the law have made a bit of difference to Cynthia Gamble. Existing captive wild animals were grandfathered in, though owners now have to register even these animals with the state Board of Animal Health. So far, the BAH has registered forty-six felids. The law hasn’t exactly coaxed enthusiasts out of hiding.
Last July, Congress began debating a federal bill that would ban most human contact with wild animals. Owners staged a mini-protest, posting to the web dozens of pictures of themselves lounging with their pussycat tigers and lions. No photo was more stunning than one submitted by a Czech tiger handler in Las Vegas. While animal-rights groups have Pamela Anderson and Tippi Hedren, exotic-animal owners have Zuzana Kukol, a passionate and sometimes irascible voice for liberty in these matters. She cites her background as a political refugee as the pilot light that heats her furor against restrictive legislation. Kukol, who is blond and has the body of a stripper, shows herself swimming in a brilliant turquoise pool, her head held erect, her hair dry and neat, and her teeth bared in a wide, pure white smile. The white tiger swimming beside her looks as flawless and expensive as a porcelain tchotchke in a casino gift shop.
The federal bill was sent to a Department of Agriculture subcommittee in August, where it awaits consideration. In a January letter to Cat Fancy magazine, Kukol wrote, “All it takes is one big cat attack or any rare incident involving an exotic species, for the local and state governments to go into action doing the only thing they know how to do—write and pass more laws … If the government reacted this way to every non-animal-related accident we face in our lives, even balloons and chocolate would be illegal by now.”