Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"...THE TIGER HAD A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE"


Last evening, a Tiger named Tatiana escaped her compound at the San Francisco Zoo and mauled three visitors, killing one before being killed by Police. In reporting that news this morning, CBC radio included the following caveat..."the Tiger had a history of violence."

Well, not exactly...

To quote comedian Chris Rock commenting on the Tiger attack on Las Vegas magician Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy, "That Tiger didn't go crazy, that Tiger went Tiger!"

I've had the pleasure of working with Tigers on several occassions, including one set where a big cat mauled two crew members. And, while I don't know the whole story about what happened at the SF Zoo, in the end, I think we'll discover there's a lot more to the story. Most of all, I wanted to assert that there's no such thing as a Tiger with a "history of violence".

The first time I worked with a Tiger was the first episode I wrote of the CBS series "Adderly" which concerned the terrorist takeover of a foreign embassy and included a Tiger (a symbol of the fictitious nation's royalty) getting loose and adding to the dangers as our hero tried to rescue the terrorists' hostages.

Working with wild animals occurs frequently in film and television, and the process is approached with all the care and attention possible -- because first and foremost, no matter how well-trained an animal might be, it's still an animal, not bound to any human rules of behavior and therefore completely unpredictable.

Adderly's producers and I met with the trainers of the Tiger we would be using, learning exactly what the animal would and would not do, how many takes it could be relied on for each piece of business and most importantly, what actors and crew could and could not do in its presence.

Based on those discussions, the script was refined and went into production.

During prep, the trainers met with each production department, making sure props and costumes didn't include animal products or scents that might attract the cat's attention, what the procedure was if a light arc'd, a sound cable fed back or a gel began smoking. Actors were carefully schooled on what movements were and were not allowed, highlighting anything that might make the animal believe his co-worker had suddenly evolved into some category of enemy or prey.

You see, wild animals view the world differently than we do. Unimportant details to us trigger primal instincts we'll never understand in them.

While filming the kids' movie "Lions for Breakfast", the other actors and I had to play a scene in which the bus we're riding breaks down in the middle of one of those drive-through wildlife parks. We decide to sack out until morning and wake up to find the vehicle surrounded by a pride of hungry Lions.

It was a terrific sequence, shot with two cameras, one in the bus with us, the other in a glass doored camera truck nearby. We shot our dialogue through the night and as dawn approached, were locked into our respective vehicles as the Park Rangers herded about a dozen Lions into our enclosure.

What no one had taken into account was that we'd driven in through the muddy Zebra pasture and both the bus and camera truck had been liberally spattered with Zebra shit. The Lions arrived, sniffed the air and promptly tore the tires off the vehicles as well as completely dismantling the empty horse trailer we were towing. They smelled prey and they went for it. The attack was both awesome to witness and terrifying to be in the middle of.

On our Tiger's first day on "Adderly", cast and crew were gathered on set and given final instructions before the animal was finally introduced. With one trainer at the ready with a holstered Magnum, the other entered with our Guest Star on a chain.

He was magnificently beautiful and far bigger in person than he'd appeared in his cage. His eyes swept the unfamiliar faces in the room as his nostrils puffed and flared, expelling all air to take in as many new scents as possible. Then he turned -- and pissed all over us.

If you've ever smelled a catbox, multiply that by a thousand and similarly expand one of those clumped puddles for the gallons that shot over us, the walls and everything else. He was marking this new territory and that included the humans who wanted to be near him.

Sodden and stunned, we watched as the cat turned, seemed to smile and took his place for the first scene. We were told to wear our now smelly clothes for the balance of the Tiger's stay on set. He never gave us another moment of trouble. Although, I swear he smirked everytime he saw me in that stained shirt.

Animal trainers have told me that they prefer working with Lions to Tigers. Lions, apparently, will beat you up pretty good if they get annoyed with you, but seldom try to finish you off. A Tiger's first instinct, on the other hand, is to kill and it finishes the job as quickly as it can -- usually in under 30 seconds.

On "Beastmaster", we had fifteen Tigers on staff. Our lead Tiger, "Sasha" had lived with her trainer since birth and loved him with more affection than I'd seen from a devoted dog. Yet, he assured me, he knew that if he were to turn his back on her for even a second at the wrong time, she'd kill him. It's what Tigers do and they do it very well.

The "Beastmaster" Tigers came from "Dreamworld", a theme park down the road from our Queensland, Australia studios. And although part of the park exhibits, they were also trained and supervised by a scientific team not only studying Tiger behavior, but working to expand the genetic pool that might eventually save the big cats from extinction.

Through them, I was introduced to aspects of the animals that most people never get to see. The series crew were given an extensive grounding in not only how to behave around Tigers, but the nuances in their behavior that might forshadow an incident. We also learned the verbal expressions and body language that would assure them we were friendly, not really worth sampling for lunch nor in need of being peed upon.

On set, a Marksman always stood by with a high-powered rifle, no matter how docile or reliable the animals appeared to be. And it was easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. You were around these creatures every day. Some got excited to see you, came over to get a good whiff of you, occassionally even rubbed up against you like a happy kitten.

But you always had to keep one thing top of mind. At any moment, they could be above you in the food chain.

One of my favorites was "Sultan". He was a dominant male, huge and extremely intelligent. I watched him learn to hit a series of complicated camera marks in less than an hour one afternoon, a skill some actors fail to master over a lifetime.

The other cats seemed to take their cues from Sultan. If he was in a good mood, they were too. If something was bothering him, the others were equally surly or wary.

Day's end was signalled to our Tigers when a rail fence was erected from their on-set enclosure to their trailer, indicating it was time to return to Dreamworld and dinner. One evening, I arrived on set as the crew went for the window shot (the last shot of the day). The fences were up and Sultan and his brothers were squashed against the gate, eager for wrap.

But as often happens when you're fighting the light and trying to get one last take, things started to go wrong. A light burned out, sound had a problem, something wasn't right with a costume. The two minutes the cats usually had to wait quickly turned to 20. I glanced at an unhappy Sultan. He met my look, stuck out his tongue and blew a Bronx cheer. A couple of other cats joined him. Pretty soon the whole gang was making fart sounds to let us know how unfair it was to keep them waiting.

A few days later, while filming with our 2nd Unit, Sultan turned on two trainers costumed as episode characters and in less than five seconds inflicted serious puncture wounds. It was over before the Marksman had time to take aim and all that saved Sultan's life was that one of the wounded trainers convinced our shooter the attack was over.

Both injured men were med-evac'd out as news choppers converged on the scene and our "Tiger Attack" made headlines across Australia and I'm sure much of the rest of the world. Within a few hours, we were in meetings with the "Dreamworld" scientists, Queensland Wildlife Inspectors and Government officials to figure out what had gone wrong.

But our production operating procedures were far more strict than even the government's own rules and as much as we tried to find the flaw, it seemed that no one had done anything they shouldn't have.

Oh, we had theories. The smoke from nearby wildfires had spooked Sultan. He'd taken the synthetic animal skin one of the trainers was wearing as the real thing, or thought another animal was attacking one of his friends.

Or -- our Tiger had simply gone Tiger.

To paraphrase another of Chris Rock's lines, "If you praise fire for cooking your food, you can't damn it for burning your fingers." We all knew that there were unpredictable dangers inherent in working with animals, so if we wanted that in our lives, we had to except what inevitably might also happen.

In the end, no one, especially the men who'd been attacked, felt Sultan should be destroyed. Truth be told, his survival meant far more to the survival of his species than any of what we did meant to the history of entertainment. In addition, we all knew that if he had wanted to kill somebody he would have, no matter how many rules we all tried to live by.

But, we retired him for the season and added some new regulations to the many pages of them we already had to make us feel better and went back to work.

Did we do the right thing? I think so. The truth is that you don't change a Leopard's spots or a Tiger's stripes. They are what they are. And if we want creatures like Tigers to share our world and enhance our experience of life, we have to understand that sometimes they'll be what they were born to be.

5 comments:

Elver said...

I would love to hear more old film industry war stories like this in the future. If you've got the time, that is.

Callaghan said...

Fascinating stuff, Jim.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

I agree with you 100% on this, Jim. You can't alter millions of years of genetic programming and behavioural instinct with a chain leash and a bullwhip.

I love my 3 cats but, once in a while, they get this look in their eyes while watching me walk past them and I can't help but think that, if I weren't 200 times their size and weight, I'd be dead now.

Mom4Kids said...

Here, here. Well said, and very interesting story. Brings to home that if we don't have the proper respect for nature, nature will teach us proper respect.

Clint Johnson said...

I'm in complete agreement with you Jim, too many people who spend too little time with nature... and they start anthropomorphizing the animals.

We have a pet wolf and we were pulling some porcupine quills out of his mouth last month. He is as friendly a canine as you can imagine but when his lip goes up and he starts to growl... you take that seriously. And this is a pack animal that can accept me as the alpha male... I don't think there is room in the tiger's world view for a human to be above it.

The tiger is one of the last animals out there who instinctually see humans as prey. Familiarity can dull that instinct but it won't go away and it isn't anything "wrong" with the tiger.

The fence was too low and I can't imagine anyone thinking that 3.8 meters was acceptable. If the young men were taunting Tatiana that was stupid and unfortunate... I'm certainly not going to say they deserved what they got but they would then have a great deal of culpability for what happened.

I gotta think that in a properly run zoo, Tatiana would still be in her cage and the boys would be facing misdemeanor charges.