When you see big cats safely behind fences at zoos and sanctuaries, and when you see them on video, acting exactly like our little furry felines at home, it's easy to believe that they're just overgrown domestic cats, who will always be friendly and easygoing when they've had lots of exposure and interaction with people. The trouble is; that isn't true.
Big cats are still wild, even if they've lived in captivity and around people since birth. As evidenced by the tragedy at a California park earlier this week, big cats can turn on you at any time. An intern at Cat Haven was mauled and killed by Cous Cous, who was reported to be her favorite lion.
Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL, reports that more than 20 people have been killed by big cats in the last 21 years. They have a list on their site of all the big cat attacks that have happened in the U.S. between 1919 and 2012. These attacks have happened everywhere, and nobody who has physical contact with big cats is truly safe.
One of the most famous attacks was that of Roy Horn, of the famous illusionist pair Siegfried and Roy. In the middle of a show in 2003, the duo's signature white tiger, named Montecore, grabbed Horn by his neck and dragged him offstage. Nobody knows what set the tiger off, though Roy himself said in an in-depth show and interview that he does not believe he was attacked, but rather that the tiger had attempted to carry him offstage to safety in the manner of helping an injured cub, after knocking him over.
Official investigations did not bear that out and maintain that the tiger attacked, but when the investigation was closed in 2008, officials still had not found out what made Montecore behave as he did. He had performed 2,000 times before without incident, and appeared well cared for.
In 2004 in Illinois, a man was killed by a lion he kept on his property while he was inside cleaning his enclosure. His wife came home to find the lion on their porch and her husband nowhere in sight. She called the police, who ultimately shot the lion to death.
A Topeka, Kan., teen, Haley Hilderbrand was killed when she posed for her senior portrait with a Siberian tiger. Many had gone before her and had their pictures done without incident, so it was felt there was no reason to fear having it done. Despite the handler restraining the tiger, it mauled Hilderbrand, who later died.
Big cats such as lions, tigers, and leopards, are both heavy and strong, and handlers who think they have control over the animal likely do not. But size and weight aren't all that matter; smaller wild cats can be every bit as dangerous. Some of us have made the mistake of improperly trying to restrain our own domestic cats when they were extremely upset, and bear the scars of such attempts. Is it really so difficult to believe that bigger cats, even seemingly small ones like ocelots and bobcats, can't be dangerous?
These species of feline haven't gone through generations of domestication the way our pet cats have. It's important to understand the distinction between "tame" and "domesticated," because they aren't the same thing. Conservationist and Wildlife Defense Fund founder Dr. W.J. Jordan says:
"Taming is a process whereby a wild animal is subdued into adapting and submitting to human control. Taming of wild animals can be accomplished by various methods but wildness is still there and can be triggered off by undue stress. There have been many instances of trainers being killed or injured by circus animals, particularly elephants."
"Domestication is a process whereby man has structurally, physiologically and behaviourally modified certain species of animals by maintaining them in or near human habitation and by breeding from those certain animals who seem best suited for various human objectives." [SOURCE]
In other words, just because a big cat appears docile at a zoo or sanctuary does not mean that it will always behave that way. Many so-called sanctuaries and wildlife parks, and people in general, fail to grasp this, and the result is what's happened in places like Cat Haven.