A contract worker at the Naples (Florida) Zoo recently scaled a 4.5-foot fence into an unauthorized area and apparently tried to pet or feed Eko, an endangered Malayan tiger (not the one pictured). The sheriff’s deputy who responded to the man’s 911 call, after unsuccessfully trying to get the tiger to let go of the man’s arm, fatally shot the animal in order to save the man’s life.
The 26-year-old was left with serious injuries. The zoo staff was left to grieve. We all are left with another needless death of an endangered animal.
As misguided as his actions were, it’s possible this young man loved animals. If so, what he tragically missed was that we love animals by respecting them.
Respect means not squeezing the hamster or running up to the dog. It means taking the frog back to the creek when we’re kids and not polluting the creek when we’re adults. It means recognizing that a wild animal, even one in a zoo, is not on earth for our amusement but for our protection.
For everyone’s well-being, interacting with wild animals has to be left to the professionals, who themselves have required safety practices. Big cats and their domestic counterparts have much in common, but what constitutes aggression or acceptable behavior is not the same for a tiger as it is for a house cat.
That’s why calling this a “tiger attack,” as several media outlets have, is a mistake. Eko may have mistaken the man’s arm for food and was trying to take it back to his den, not pull the man into the habitat. This person violated the tiger’s space, not the other way around.
Zoos vary, but I’ve visited the Naples Zoo many times and have seen the conscientious care given to the animals. This is no roadside outfit with cramped cages and indifferent staff. It’s accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, whose standards I understand to be pretty strict.
The folks at the Naples Zoo understand the importance of preserving and protecting vulnerable animal species and natural settings and inspiring others to care. This is important everywhere, but especially Southwest Florida, where the construction crane is (half) jokingly referred to as the state bird.
To honor Eko’s memory and help tigers like him — the breeding population is now below 200 in the wild — the zoo has established the Eko Tiger Conservation Fund. The zoo reports that 100 percent of the funds donated will help save tigers in Malaysia through the Wildlife Conservation Society. Donations can be made at www.napleszoo.com/donate with the word TIGER in the comment section, or by sending a check (payable to Naples Zoo) to Naples Zoo, Eko Tiger, 1590 Goodlette Rd N, Naples, FL 34102-5260.
Support wildlife preservation with your time and talent. Sponsor an animal at your local zoo or sanctuary. The next time you go there and see your favorite tiger, gorilla, red panda, or whoever else, send them love from your safe space outside their habitat. They’ll get it.
Let’s love animals, especially the dangerous and endangered, in a way that lets us all live another day.