Controversial Tigers

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Thousands of years ago, when the Chinese zodiac calendar was first formulated, the Tiger was selected to symbolize power and speed. Greatly admired as the King of Beasts (yes, the tiger, not the lion), the sign of the tiger evoked awe. Today, the tiger, whether real or fictional, is more likely to evoke controversy.

In the year that we were born, there were still an estimated 72,000 tigers roaming wild in India and Asia. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 tigers in the wild, mainly in India, and that number is rapidly diminishing. There are more tigers in captivity than free, including in Mexico – a territory where jaguars were indigenous but tigers were not. Some say that keeping tigers in captivity helps preserves the species. But naturalists caution that even tigers raised in state-of-the-art zoos cannot be released back into their natural environments because they lack survival skills.

Even more controversial is the practice of the raising of tigers as pets. Those cute little tiger cubs, such as the one the U.S. border patrol found not long ago being smuggled in a car crossing from Mexico, grow up to be dangerous and powerful beasts. When they slip from the control of their inexperienced owners in cities, including during the past year in Guadalajara, they cause panic and endanger their own lives as they are hunted down. And the owners of big cat parks who bill themselves as “experts” in the care and feeding of tigers appear to be themselves a breed apart.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, an eight-episode series released by Netflix in 2020, attracted a very large audience. Detailing the contentious history between a big cat park owner and an animal rights activist, the documentary literally had a captive audience, since much of the world was locked down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Given the wide-spread discussion about the series, we decided to watch the first episode and were so disgusted with the characters, the topic and poor quality of the video, that we became part of the controversy between those who breathlessly watched every episode and those who would prefer to be eaten by a tiger than to watch this series.

Even tigers in fiction can’t seem to escape modern-day criticism and controversy. The children’s book Little Black Sambo, written by the Scottish author Helen Bannerman and published in 1899, was based on an Indian tale, Little Babaji, the Boy and the Tigers, by Chibikuro Sampo. Both versions charmingly tell the tale of a little boy in India who was so brave he was able to fool fierce tigers into running so fast in a circle that they turned into butter or ghee. But recently there was a movement to ban the book in the U.S. as politically incorrect – equating Sambo with African Americans. And one small-city book store that placed the book in its shop window was virtually shut down while the community argued about racial insensitivity versus censorship.

The beloved character Tigger in Winnie the Pooh (Winny de Puh in Mexico) did not escape criticism and pushback. When a psychologist gratuitously analyzed the book’s characters, Tigger was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Ardent Tigger fans growled in outrage, especially when Ritalin and family therapy were prescribed.

Both the book Life of Pi and the movie of the same name – featuring as a main character a magnificent and possibly imaginary tiger – were mired in controversy. The author of the book, Yan Martel, was accused of plagiarizing the story from another author’s earlier book. The film tiger, who of course spoke Spanish in the version we saw in Oaxaca, was virtually created by the visual effects artists at VXF. The industry was in an uproar when VXF was not mentioned by Ang Lee in his Academy Awards acceptance speech when he won the Oscar for Best Director for Pi.

We hope the designation of 2022 as the Year of the Tiger does not portend twelve months of controversy. We have had enough polarization around the world in 2021. We have fond memories of our son as an infant and toddler, hugging his stuffed “tigger” until the plush fur wore thin and the stuffing appeared at the seams; for us the tiger represents the love of a child. Let us hope that for the world, the Year of the Tiger will be seen as originally projected – one of power and speed that can overcome conflict.

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