I wouldn’t normally blog my thoughts on a television programme. Whether I thought it to be wonderful (Natural World’s “My life as a Turkey”) or perhaps less than wonderful (“Springwatch”, perhaps, nowadays).
I’ll break a habit briefly today though, as BBC’s “Tigers about the house” (which ran on BBC2 for the past three nights) has caused something of a “Twitter storm”.
Before I start - I do realise that some (many?) who make it all the way through my blog post below might strongly disagree with me. I have no truck with that. You're quite entitled to be wrong!
For those reading this who haven’t seen this heavily-previewed programme (yet?), “Tigers about the house” documented the hand-rearing of two Sumatran tiger cubs by Giles - an expat Brit now working in “Australia Zoo” (of Steve Irwin fame) as “Head of exotic carnivores” (think big cats).
As I’ve already written, the series was heavily previewed last week by the BBC with cutesy footage of fluffy tiger cubs rolling about a sitting room, ripping a sofa to shreds and feeding from a baby’s bottle.
Who could resist that?
Not me certainly.
I set the cable hard drive to record the series and was very much looking forward to it – as BBC Nature television programmes often seem to me to be worth the licence fee on their own.
We weren’t told during the previews that the series was set in Australia, let alone Australia Zoo but that became pretty obvious after five minutes or so, looking at the blue skies in the first bits of footage, the exotic trees and plants and Giles’ all-too-apparent Australian drawl, meaning that every statement he uttered, (as with most Australians), rose in pitch at the end of the sentence and ended up sounding like a question? (Deliberate question mark). But hey ho.
Steve Irwin has been dead for some time as we know. Killed at the end of the sharp-end of a stingray in 2006. But the “Crocodile hunter” as he became known, was a born communicator and his legacy lives on.
Even though he often divided opinion (I for one was less than comfortable about his methods of sensationalism and jumping on (or handling) anything dangerous – a method which caught up with him in the end) he certainly introduced many to the wonders of the natural world – certainly in terms of exotic, predatory macro fauna such as crocodiles, snakes etc...
I often use his catchphrases myself when describing my (far less exciting?) wildlife encounters. “Croikey! What an ippsaloot byooody” I’ll say if an elephant hawkmoth lands in my moth trap, for example.
He firmly believed that successful conservation began with sharing & broadcasting his fevered excitement for wildlife, rather than preaching to people – and I most certainly think he got that spot on.
All too often these days “conservationists” glumly look down their snotty little noses at the “rest of us” & point their gnarly fingers at “us” in the name of green science or conservation.
That just doesn’t work.
In fact it very often has the opposite effect to the one intended.
Many (most?) “Conservationists” are sadly lacking any character, any sort of “human skills” and are not in the slightest bit media savvy – ultimately very important in the conservation battle. Steve Irwin certainly did not fall into this camp.
But perhaps he shouldn’t have been quite so “hands-on” with the wildlife he showed to the world. Jacques Cousteau had that opinion (amongst many others) and let him know. It was a very unsubtle, unsophisticated conservation strategy for sure (and his knowledge of any bigger picture seemed basic at best) but there’s little doubt he has inspired many people into caring more for wildlife and that must be a good thing.
So....his legacy continues it seems. Perhaps all over the world, but certainly in Australia Zoo, just north of Brisbane.
Is that a good thing? Very possibly.
I’ll try and keep my thoughts brief. That might be difficult!
The first programme (of three) began by telling us, the viewing public, that one of Australia Zoo’s adult female tigers was heavily pregnant and about to give birth.
Giles Clark (the head keeper) was present at the (filmed) birth and within a few minutes of the programme starting, two male tiger cubs had been born (on the 22nd August 2013). These cubs were named “Spot” and “Stripe” by Giles, although now I see the zoo has changed their names to “Hunter” and “Clarence”. (Source: Australia zoo website).
“Spot” and “Stripe” were left with their mother for a week or three (the actual length of time was not mentioned on the television programme) and then removed from her. This was despite both cubs and mother appearing to be in good health. Suckling. No rejection. No threat to or from the other (segregated) tigers.
Giles suggested that because these cubs were “so valuable” (in terms of genetic bloodlines for breeding purposes), “to give them the best chance in life, it would be better to hand rear them at his house”, rather than leave them with their mother.
This mantra of “giving them (the cubs) the best chance in life” was repeated throughout all three programmes. I’ll come back to that.
No further explanation was given on the television show. No nod to any previous attempts. No comparisons to other rearing techniques. No research. No evidence at all to back up Giles’ words.
I had originally been expecting a mother die whilst giving birth, a poacher’s gun or a rejection situation to explain why two tigers were being hand raised in a suburban house, from the short trailers last week.
None of that.
There was no poacher.
The mother was healthy, attentive and providing antibody-laden milk for her young (as any human mother will tell you – this is all very natural and very important in terms of the health of the young).
The cubs were healthy and suckling.
There was no sniff of rejection.
All seemed perfect.
So why remove the cubs from their mother then?
And why so early?
It was allegedly a “tough decision” (quote from BBC nature) but thought “best” for the cubs’ wellbeing – and it was completely glossed over by the television production team. But not by Giles it seems, off screen.
A “tough decision” it really didn’t come across as, on television.
Or if it was, the production team chose not to broadcast any hand-wringing or scratching of heads.
The tigers’ mother was led out for one of her daily walks through the local bush and the cubs were whisked away. When the keepers returned with the mother, there was precious little television time given to the mother’s reaction.
Giles suggested to the camera that “this happens all the time in the wild (predators take cubs etc) and the mothers just get on with it.”
Tigers of course are cats. Big cats. Mammals. Pretty high up in any evolutionary tree. Sentient mammals at that (despite the nonsensical, ignorant protestations of both devout humanists and religious zealots that often see man as: a) separate to beast and b) the only organism possibly possessing the capability of any sort of human-like emotion(s).
I suspect the mother did (of course) “get on with it” eventually (what choice did she have), but after what might very probably have amounted to an awful lot of “stress” and searching for her missing cubs. She was producing milk for her cubs. Her feline female hormones would have been all over the gaff.
You don’t, no.... you CAN’T just flick a switch in mammals and end all that in heartbeat.
You KEEP producing milk for a while.
Your hormones are still in “post-birthing” mode.
And you are very, VERY protective.
Sexual behaviour, birthing and rearing of young is invariably incredibly dangerous for most animals – and incredibly stressful. The most dangerous and the most stressful time of an animal’s (any animal’s life).
At that particular part of the life cycle both parent and young are at their most vulnerable. Even more stressful perhaps if all that effort and risk comes abruptly to nothing.
For no appreciable reason.
But we got no footage of the mother’s reaction (or lack of) at all.
Either her behaviour on discovering her cubs would be needing milk but that they’d suddenly gone or changes in her physiological get up, her hormones, her milk production, and her swollen teats.
I wonder why not?
But the television programme could at now deliver what it promised us – footage of cutesy tiger cubs being reared in someone’s sitting room.
Only now (within ten minutes or so after the first programme aired), those of us more comfortable with critical thinking and less open to swallowing every piece of information (not) given to us in an unquestioning way, were getting worried.
Hysterical in some cases on social media sites.
The question remains.
Why were the healthy cubs removed from their healthy mother? And why so early?
Without a proper, protracted televised explanation (probably necessary to try to avoid any potential backlash on social media) many viewers reacted badly.
Was the only reason behind the separation to give the cubs "the best chance in life"? The best chance of survival? In an interview with the BBC, Giles states that globally, a third of captive-bred Sumatran tiger cubs don't make it to adulthood. It was a pity that fact was missed during the broadcast of the shows.
But if anyone should know the facts - Giles should know.
That all said, I certainly watched the remainder of the first programme with a slightly heavier heart than I’d first anticipated.
Sure, it was delightful to see these two tiny tiger cubs play around with human possessions, roll around in front of the cameras, escape from their sitting room “den” and generally invoke lots of “Awwwwwws”...
So was another reason behind the removal of the cubs from their mother? To get the maximum “AWWWWwwww” factor from the television programme.
Would footage of an adult tiger raising its cubs “naturally” would hold viewers’ attention, as much as footage of another khaki Bermuda-shorts-clad “Crocodile hunter” hand feeding tiger cubs with a baby’s bottle in his own sitting room?
No is the probable answer.
Sad though that is.
I don’t think the television production company were after huge ratings particularly (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that) for their own benefit.
But the programme has sparked an upsurge in donations to tiger charities.
21st Century Tiger (a play on 20th Century Fox one assumes) are this week reporting a huge increase in donations as a direct result of the “Tigers about the house” television programme. They’ll not be alone.
So that has to be good, doesn’t it?
Of course it is.
But one wonders whether they might have received a similar upsurge in donations if the television programme concentrated less on “tigers about the house” as opposed to wild tigers in Sumatra – cubs, snares ‘n’ all.
When Giles did head off to Sumatra to see the conservation project that Australia Zoo had allegedly given over 1 million Australian dollars to in the last decade (no evidence of that either), the footage of confiscated snares, tiger skins and bones was truly horrific. That for me was the post powerful part of the programme, but for others I guess, it just added the cherry on the cake – and got them to pick up the phone or turn on their PCs to donate.
I don’t think there is much in any argument to suggest most modern day zoos don’t contribute massively to conservation projects, both directly and indirectly.
Australia zoo doesn’t spearhead any conservation project in Sumatra. It’s not setting up new reserves or protected areas. What it does is use funds raised by showing off its performing tigers to add to Sumatra’s tiger conservation coffers.
You read that correctly.
They perform to crowds each day. Leaping. Swimming. Splashing. Running. Climbing. For food. Or “enjoyment”.
Many zoological parks these days actively avoid that type of show. Animals are not to be trained to perform. You leave them alone. You don’t even enter their enclosure unless absolutely necessary. I think that’s the type of zoo I’m most comfortable with.
Australia Zoo is not that type of zoo.
But zoos (whether Australia Zoo or not) are not all about conservation or captive breeding.
They’re businesses like any other.
They’re there to make money.
Be that though regional tourism, or gifts, or just the treat of seeing a wild animal that you couldn’t possibly otherwise.
Back to the programme...
In the last programme of the three last night, the cubs were re-introduced to the adult tigers at the zoo (they were too big to keep at home by then).
We noted that the television production team chose NOT to show any footage of the cubs being reintroduced to their mother. We don’t even know if that happened. That’s a shame.
Unfortunately things for “Spot” (“Hunter” now) took a huge turn for the worse with several pretty unsuccessful operations to save both his eyes – afflicted with a congenital cataract problem so the poor thing was.
Last night’s programme was real heart-in-mouth stuff. Awful for the cubs (who had to be separated) and of course “Spot” (“Hunter”) who nearly died in theatre and then even after a long, painful, solo recuperation, lost one of his eyes anyway. Even more heart-rending, powerful stuff for the viewing public though. The footage of the poor tiger cub stopping breathing on the theatre slab. Giles crying. The Disneyfied viewing British public were in a mess watching that. Including me!
Well. Eventually “Spot” (“Hunter”) recovered as best as he was ever going to do, and was reintroduced to his brother. Neither tiger will be released into the wild, but whereas “Stripe” (“Clarence”) will head off in a year or so to other zoological parks to continue the captive breeding programme, cloudy-eyed “Spot” (“Hunter”) will spend the rest of his days at Australia Zoo, with badly impaired vision.
Best place for him I’d have thought. You KNOW he’ll be looked after, loved and cared for exceptionally well.
I’m no director of a zoo.
Or a zookeeper. (Though I was once offered a job at London Zoo).
Or an “expert” in conservation.
Or a big cat “expert”.
I’m not even that comfortable with zoos.
But I appreciate that they do provide at least one VERY important function other than captive breeding for “conservation” purposes.
They enable people, particularly young people, to see, in real life, close up, some amazing animals – and often that real life (sometimes even tactile) moment becomes embedded in a human brain – the zoo visitors are FAR more likely to become or remain interested in life other than human life and potentially get directly involved with conservation – or indirectly contribute hard cash.
Sad though that is too.
If you’ve never seen a tiger (other than on television), then there’s no problem is there?
You probably wouldn’t miss them if they were all snared.
Do you miss the Thylacine?
Do you even know what the Thylacine was?
It was known as the “Tasmanian Tiger” and became extinct in the 1930s.
But if you can SEE and perhaps even TOUCH the endangered animals in real life at a zoo or wildlife park (appreciate how wonderful they are and how they are indeed worth saving), then conservation has a chance.
That was Steve Irwin’s technique.
That is what Australia Zoo still believes.
I think they almost certainly have a point.
Look. I wish it wasn’t necessary.
I wish I had more faith in the human animal to do better without having to have “touching zoos” as a necessary evil.
But that’s what I think of zoos.
A necessary evil.
Most zoological parks have changed hugely over the last 50 years or so. The animals’ welfare and health is of paramount importance and most zoos do all they can to give all their captive creatures (great and small) a habitat that they might feel comfortable(ish) in.
I don’t doubt for a second that the tigers at Australia Zoo were (are) all in good health (apart from “Spot’s” (or “Hunter’s” now) congenital cataract problem.
I have no doubt at all that all the tiger-keepers do all they can for their captive cats and all the cats seem content at worst.
No. There’s no obvious issue with the welfare of the tigers at Australia Zoo.
I tend to think Giles and his team are doing a marvellous job and I for one, wouldn’t want anyone else to look after a group of captive-breeding tigers.
I also tend to think they probably know more about getting as much money pumped into other groups’ conservation projects as they can.
The best way to get as much money as possible.
The necessary evil way to get and hold attention.
And then money.
Lots and lots of money.
I would go as far to suggest that Giles and his team know far more about wallet opening (in the name of conservation) than do the chatterers and critics on social media sites, some of which were screaming for “the zoo to be closed down because it’s rubbish”, yadda yadda yadda.
There were tweets from outraged people from all over the UK during all three shows questioning the tiger expert’s decisions. (Like they knew any better). Citing Giles’ ego as the reason behind the cubs removal (do they know the man?) and worse.
Again - It doesn’t please me to admit that possibly the best way to save a species might be to sacrifice (so to speak) a few at a zoo.
It pains me in fact.
These tigers will never be released into the wild after all. They never could be. Despite what unqualified armchair conservationists think.
After giving this an awful lot of thought over the last two days, I rather think these “armchair experts” are drawing their own conclusions based on rose-tinted ideology and little else.
No experience in real-world conservation.
Certainly no meaningful big cat knowledge.
But worse than that...
Precious few human skills.
No manipulative, influencing or persuading skills.
Not much to go on at all really.
We have to be realistic about all this. We have to be pragmatic. Not sink in dogma.
We need to be pretty hard-nosed and thick-skinned.
Now that mankind has almost eradicated tigers... only man can sort the mess out.
And the more the better.
By media manipulation, or communication or proper management or conservation or protection or simply with cold hard cash.
And in big numbers.
Ideally I wish tiger conservation could be done a different way and I do wish the television production company could have better explained (given more time to Giles to explain) why he felt it was necessary to hand rear the tiger cubs rather than leave with their mother for the television show. I actually think the TV production team missed a trick there - and instead of the inevitable twitter storm that followed the "no explanation", people might have been placated and given even MORE money to tiger charities.
But all power to Giles and his team as far as I am concerned.
Now all this might end badly for wild Sumatran tigers anyway (at current rate of decline, perhaps within a decade).
But Giles, 21st Century Tiger and all the others involved in front-line big cat conservation are certainly better-placed than me (or you?) to make that call.
I might have felt uneasy watching Steve Irwin and for similar reasons Giles Clark, although Giles seems more of a reserved Brit rather than an extrovert Australian "tigger" like Steve Irwin was.
But at least I appreciate that those two men certainly seem(ed) to know how to get people digging in the pockets – and that sort of human skill is (as I’ve said earlier in this post) sadly lacking in many of our glum, finger-waggling, dour, preaching “conservationists” these days.
“Spot” and “Stripe” (“Hunter” and “Clarence” now at the zoo) might not be the most important Sumatran tigers bred in captivity “because of their wild blood-line” (as was stated repeatedly in the television programme).
But bloodline aside; they might VERY well be even more important than that – the two little tiger cubs that kicked off a real tiger conservation push in Sumatra - perhaps even enough (eventually) to save their wild brothers and sisters.
They could indeed be the most important Sumatran tigers in the world right now. Not that they could know that of course.
And all because they were the stars of a heavily-criticised television programme called “Tigers about the house”.
Good luck to Giles and his team.
If you haven't clicked on several hyperlinks in the blog post above... please click on this one HERE.
It gives a behind the scenes explanation of Giles' decisions (early removal of cubs, reasons why they were hand raised etc...)
It should (perhaps?) silence the social media tweeps, calling for the zoo to close and also for Giles' head.
"Tigers about the house" was a must-see mini series. Do try to watch it on i-player if you can.