A tiger is for life, not just for Christmas

It is tempting to see this obsession with big, bad pets as a symptom of escalating sexual insecurity

Having been named after a great uncle killed by a couple of lions kept at his home in Norfolk, I have an instinctive sympathy towards Antoine Yates, the New Yorker whose exotic pets landed him in trouble this week. Antoine, you may have read, kept a 400-pound tiger called Ming in an apartment in Harlem, with a five-foot alligator and a presumably rather nervous kitten called Shadow.

Last week, Antoine made a mistake very similar to the one that cost Great Uncle Terence his life. He decided to play a game of rough-and-tumble with his pet. During the romp, which Antoine calls "the Buddy-Buddy routine", Ming became rather over-excited and, when Shadow made an unwise appearance, attempted to involve the kitten in the game. Antoine tried to intercede and was badly bitten.

Not believing his story that a dog was responsible for the wound, the authorities investigated. A woman downstairs revealed that large quantities of urine had been leaking through her ceiling and, after an exciting police operation, Ming was tranquillised and shipped off to a sanctuary in Ohio, the alligator was sent to a zoo in Indiana while Shadow's fate remains unclear. "I feel heartbroken," their owner told The New York Times. Ming had been "like my brother, my best friend, my only friend, really."

It has been a big week for stories about dangerous animals. Roy Horn, part of the Siegried and Roy team of magicians, is still critically injured after one of his white tigers mauled him during a show in Las Vegas. Up in Alaska, a Californian called Timothy Treadwell, who campaigned on behalf of grizzly bears, has, with his girlfriend, been killed and partly eaten by bears.

It appears that an interest in large, lethal animals has become something of a craze in America - a "national epidemic", according to Jim Breheny, the man from the Bronx who had to find Ming a home. There are 15,000 pet tigers, lions, cougars and other kinds of big cats being kept as pets. Tiger cubs are advertised on the internet for between $500 and $2,000. Nine people have been mauled to death over the past five years.

It could be argued that there is nothing particularly new here, and certainly Great Uncle Terence was not alone in his enthusiasm - another of my antecedents, Uncle Chops, apparently had a menagerie which included leopards, wallabies, lion cubs and several species of monkey. On the other hand, the scale of the latest obsession with big, bad pets is so extraordinary that it is tempting to see it as yet another symptom of the escalating sexual insecurity of the American male, similar to the need to carry guns, drive vast, gas-guzzling Hummers or invade foreign countries.

Big game hunting, another aspect of the same obsession, is particularly popular with American (and, interestingly, German) businessmen, and is often overtly parasexual. According to a Zimbabwean friend who used to run a hunting business, the plump, middle-aged types who were his customers invariably brought a young trophy wife or girlfriend to whom they would show off. There was nothing quite like bringing down a bull elephant, shepherded into his sights by the safari organisers, for affirming the hunter's essential maleness.

But, as far as people like Antoine Yates are concerned, the attraction of wild animals is not to kill them but to master them with love and domestication. The Bronx Zoo's Mr Breheny sees the trend above all as "an aberrant way to get close to nature" and, if that is the case, the popularity and sophistication of wildlife documentaries have played a part. Technology, in the form of cosy close-ups, has brought wild creatures into the sitting-room so that, for the feeble-minded and over-sentimental, it is a small, logical step to make that presence a reality.

When the sainted David Attenborough was famously filmed being ragged by the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, he did them a double disservice. Not only was he risking passing on an infection, minor to humans but potentially fatal to primates, but he was also contributing to the myth that, deep down, wild animals are as cuddly and friendly as a domestic pet.

It would be unfair to include the late Timothy Treadwell among those sent slightly bonkers by their love of animals. A gentle Californian who wandered unarmed through the Alaskan wilderness, touching grizzly bears and singing "I love you" to them, he also actively campaigned for their protection and their environment - that is, until last week when a couple of grizzlies committed an act of profound, terminal ingratitude.

But for all his eccentricity, I see Treadwell as something of a hero, the opposite of the idiotic Antoine Yates. In the past he had said that he would be proud to end up in a pile of bear dung and that indeed was where he did end up. "I think Timothy would say it's the culmination of his life's work," a friend commented. Some animal nutters are out there, doing good.

terblacker@aol.com

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