My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
So tyger fierce took life away
Sarah Cross sees culture triumph over nature behind visions of biodiversity
In 1703, in Malmsebury, Wiltshire, a tiger killed a woman named Hannah Twynnoy. In 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq, a soldier killed a tiger named Mendouh. Both events provoked outcry. In 300 years, the biological identity of tigers has not changed: but their cultural identity has. The animals’ dominant metaphor has moved from ‘dangerous’ to ‘endangered’. Can archaeology help us understand this change?
Hannah Twynnoy’s gravestone records her violent death with a poem from which my title is taken. Although it is possible ‘tiger’ meant ‘violent outsider’ rather than Panthera tigris, in the 18th century tigers were mostly viewed as dangerous beasts.
Mendouh’s death ended the story of how the US forces in Baghdad tried to use the reconstruction of the zoo as a flagship for democracy. A GI feeding the tiger was mauled. Another GI shot the tiger in the head. International sympathy was with the tiger.
Almost everything you read about tigers is concerned with biodiversity and their status as an endangered species. However, as an archaeologist, I think the material conditions of tigers tell a different story.
The highest concentration of tigers is not in the parts of Asia to which they are indigenous, but in the USA. There are more tigers in Texas than there are in the wild, most of them private pets. A pet tiger shows its owner’s power.
Zoo tigers can also be seen as pets, viewed with affection, but completely controlled by humans. This does not mean zoos are bad, but they are human spaces and they are arranged for our convenience and pleasure.
Most modern zoos trumpet the increased space they ‘provide’ their animals: but it is still space on a human scale. The cost of land and the need for visitors to see the animals limit the size of a zoo enclosure.
There are over 30 tigers on the Isle of Wight in a Victorian Fort ‘sanctuary’. In the Amur Basin one tiger occupies territory the size of Greater London. The whole of Britain could support between 50 and 100 tigers. A healthy breeding population would need an area the size of France.
In Sumatra approximately 500 tigers share much less space with a dense human population. Nearly 150 people there have been killed by tigers in the last two decades. As with pets, we want to make them comfortable, but there is a limit to the space we can offer.
Nevertheless, many people hope that space will be made for tigers in the future. So recently two tigers have been sent from South China to South Africa for ‘rewilding’. As dogs are sent to obedience school, tigers are sent to wild school. The proper behaviour of a tiger is defined and taught by humans.
The RSPCA, however, is concerned that teaching tigers to hunt is cruel, and the programme may be shut down. Zoo tigers do not hunt, and most zoos do not even ‘serve’ recognisable animal parts for fear of disturbing the visitors. Public satisfaction is important when creating ‘habitats’ for ‘wild’ animals.
The final role for tigers in our culture is as performers. Roy Horn, a Las Vegas magician, was mauled by one of the tigers he had bred and trained from birth. As he was rushed to intensive care, he gave distinct orders not to harm the cat.
Human performers show great affection for their animal partners, and there are surprisingly few cases of outright cruelty in this sphere. Still, the entire life of a performing tiger demonstrates the skill and power of the human partner over the ‘wild’.
In contemporary culture dwindling wild tigers are a sideshow to the thousands whose lives we control. Conservation is entwined with constraint and that makes tigers less frightening. We have replaced fear and respect with concern and affection.
In this way, violence and tragedy can be made humorous, as seen in the ‘commemoration’ of Hannah Twynnoy. Are there parallels in the way we treat castles and other sites associated with warfare? Our focus on their rarity and need for conservation could distract us from experiencing them as powerful expressions of an important reality—past and present.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005