Tiger, by Susie Green, Reaktion Books 2006.
(Summarized by Sandy Burnley, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)
Susie Green, the author of the Reaktion’s book Tiger, took numerous trips to India to study tigers in the wild. In this text shetraces tigers’ natural and cultural history as both predator and prey, and the ensuing human/animal relationships that have constructed that history. Her book is organized into five chapters, beginning with the biological, to the Taoist and Chinese zodiac mythology, to multiple other symbolic representations, and finishes with conservation. She ends her novel with a stress on the tiger’s critical endangerment and how its human representation and appropriation has pressed it to the brink of extinction. She offers a few answers on how we might help conserve the tiger’s natural environment and steps that might result in an attainable sustainability. She stresses, however, time is of the utmost essence and not on their side.
Her first chapter, “Evolution and Natural History” is appropriately named, and as with every good narrative, begins with an entertaining origin story that would set the stage for the complicated relationship between humans and tigers. She reiterates how out of the burrow of an ancient anteater came man and his brother, tiger. The tiger went to live in the luscious forest, while man occupied the domestic space. When man went into the forest, he was forced to fight his brother and kill him with a poisoned dart. The tiger’s body floated on the water until the divine Dingu-Aneni covered the tigers bones with his own body and blood for ten years. Afterward, from the tiger’s bones sprang tens of tens of tigers. While this may be merely an entertaining myth behind the tiger’s origin, the reality is just as elusive. Paleontologists are in argument as to who were the tiger’s ancestors, due to the lack of evidence, prevalence of fossils, and location of findings. What is certain, and even more frightening, is out of eight modern tiger species, only four are left, and those live in alarmingly low numbers. They are the Amur, Indochinese, Bengal, and Sumatran. They have four times fewer genetic differences between them than the human race, with the Sumatran as the most discernibly darker of the four. More important than their generic categorization, however, is Green’s emphasis on their individual behavior and personality. Therefore, while describing multiple tiger interactions, her descriptions differ, demonstrating an intelligence and emotional side of the tiger, that its generic name or superficial glance cannot not unveil. She mentions if humans had taken the time to learn about tigers and their behaviors, they might not now be in the critical situation in which we have placed them—incessantly killed and poached for their skins and other symbolic anatomy. Because of our obsession with their constructed representations, much of what we knew (or thought we knew about tigers) are fairy tales . . . or nightmares. Therefore, she spends the rest of this chapter discussing their biology and it is a conversation I will briefly outline in the following paragraph.
Despite their ferocious and predatory image, the reality is they’re as picky as a housecoat when it comes to eating. They stop feeding when they are full and only killing when they’re hungry. They are, of course, an alpha predator, and therefore an integral species in the food chain. Not only do they keep the population of prey in control, but their abandoned left-overs provide meals for many scavengers and predators within their habitat. They are solitary hunters (most of the time) and hunt by ambush; first circling their prey to find the best vantage point. If they are injured, they roll in mud to seal any open wounds they cannot reach with their antiseptic tongue, and eat grass to help purge their bodies of worms. This is a more accurate and biological description than the ones we are to meet in her following chapters.
Her chapter ends with their sexual habits and continues into the second chapter, except now their habits are examined through a more cultural lens. She describes their mating as a ritual filled with a display of prowess on the behalf of the male suitor, and leisurely yet determined sexuality on behalf of the tigress. Their sexuality has transformed the tigress into a symbol of both masculinity and femininity. Green describes the tigress’ sexual invite as lusty, focusing on her throaty vocal calls when in heat, to support why the tiger has become a symbol of sexuality, femininity, strength, and virility (after all, they copulate as many as fifty times per day during estrous). The adjectives assigned to tigers are so fluid—both masculine and feminine—that it is easy to understand why the White Tiger has become the Taoist representation of Autumn; a season that is not as strict a binary as Summer or Winter, but lies within a subtle spectrum. Her counterpart is the Azure Dragon, representing spring, and both of these symbols are often seen representing a yin and yang balance, or placed in a chi formation (as in the shape of a horseshoe), that easily flow into each other. She takes this symbol a step further, and discusses how this balance has become a sexual paradigm in Chinese culture, but not without violence to the tiger. In order to achieve a tiger-like virility, the penis and bones of tigers are often grounded up and used in medications to solve impotence, even though there isn’t any evidence to support the efficacy of this practice. Even the infamous Viagra pill coincidentally derives it name from the sanskrit word, Vyaghra, which means tiger. Due to these misgiving, tigers have gone from predator to prey. Humans attempt to farm them with the defense it would save wild tigers, so that they may obtain their skins and other organs. The farmed cubs suckle on sows after they are prematurely separated from their mothers. The alpha predator then becomes little more than a falsely reputed aphrodisiac, while male and female human bodies display themselves across a tiger skin rug to illustrate their own sexuality. Of course, all this symbolism couldn’t be contained within one culture. During English imperialism of India, the tiger’s sexual and powerful symbolism became a threat to the empire. In order to change this image, the tiger was represented as ferocious, man-eating, rapacious, and dishonest (because it hunted by ambush). This is a complete juxtaposition of the picky and intelligent individual we met in the first chapter, before cultural appropriation. In an effort to disperse this vicious reputation, tigers were vigorously and unremittingly hunted by the “brave” hunters who placed their lives within the tiger’s grasp—on top of an elephant. The men brought home tiger skins as a symbol of their own right to conquer and their own bravery and prowess. Furthermore, the tiger unjustly became the antithesis of the noble English lion (two foreign cats who felt the violence behind imperialism and human appropriation). Of course, this wasn’t taken lightly, but by the time humans came to the tigers’ defense, their number were already dangerously low.
Her third chapter notes some resistance to these images. For example, Edward T. Bennet, an English naturalist, did not agree with the popular depiction of tigers as cruel and murderous. Rather he found tigers to be graceful and to enjoy caresses. This wasn’t enough, however, to stop the media and other imperialistic attitudes from targeting the tiger in ways similar to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (the tiger is the villain). They were displayed to be relentless killers, eating everything from bone to clothes (again tigers are extremely picky in reality). One was able to gain godlike status if they were represented as having control over a tiger, or turning into one. More and more persons claimed to be were-tigers, and sometimes karma had funny ways of dealing with them. For example, one man (an outsider to the village) claimed to be able to turn into a tiger so more villagers would respect him and buy his merchandise. He was found in a trap into which he had run for sanctuary while escaping a real tiger. Since tigers were hunting the native villagers’ buffalo (mostly due to the tigers’ own lack of prey and land development) he was speared within the trap as punishment. Perhaps they really did believe he was a were-tiger, or perhaps they punished him for raising his prices for an unethical profit. Either way, its a powerful story that alludes to the tiger’s influence on society, or at least the humans ideal of the tiger. It wasn’t, however, all dark for this species. Some cultures and individuals believed them to be mighty benefactors and protectors of the forest—a vision ongoing to this day. Their images continue to inspire art, religious beliefs, and mental states. What is to be remembered, however, is how all of these representations primarily objectify the tiger, regardless of their purpose.
Her fourth chapter continues with tiger representations traveling through England. British soldiers wore the skins of tigers and Queen Victoria attended shows displaying tigers, often in ways that would advance imperialist notions. Tigers became objects you could use for propaganda, tattoo onto your skin, or a power you could consume. They could be used to display wealth, to fight other cats or predators, or if we travel back in time to Rome, consume your victims in coliseums. In this manner, if they were not prey, they were slaves, often pushed, antagonized, or starved before they could be forced to do as commanded. They could be placed in menageries to be looked at, drawn, studied (however unnaturally), inspire poetry, placed in circuses, pushed into crates, travel around the world in cages, inbred for recessive traits (white tigers) that would ultimately lead to debilitating health issues, or kept as pets where they could be declawed, their teeth dulled, castrated, and left to pathetically fend for themselves after they grew too large for their human buyers. At the very least, they could be stamped into a brand for marketing, such as Tony the Tiger. The parade of violence Green illustrates in this chapter highlights the human as the subject, rather than the tiger. They were used to empower humans and support our own megalomania. By this time we’re left desperately shifting through the train of images to find what has happened to the Real tiger.
Green travels to India’s large national tiger reserves to bring us back to the tiger as an individual, but our relief is quickly dissipated by the horror behind current politics. An investigation found half the tiger population suddenly missing in one of the reservations, only to be found poached on the black market. If tigers aren’t safe on reservations, what hope does the wild tiger have? It seems less than 1500 tigers remain in the wild, and future generations will have nothing but the inbred, imprinted, falsified, and facile images of tigers behind bars. Nor are poachers completely to blame. Her long trace of history and cultural imperialism has made it clear; these people are poor, their land has been stripped away, and their attitudes corrupted. Who’s to blame them for falling for the larger monetary temptation of poaching rather than conserving? In this manner, Green traces both a practical and moral argument, and ends her work with an important message. If we do not conserve the forest there will not be enough land for the tiger to survive, and if we do not save the tiger, the land will no longer be a useful and self-sustaining ecosystem. We will trade beautiful wildlife for million dollar five-star resorts. If we continue on this projection the message will read, come and visit India’s natural reserves, promising a look at the extinct (in this area) River Dolphin and Javan Rhino, leave your garbage on the reserve, and don’t forget to see the tigers as tiny tracked dots on a computer screen, before they’re all gone. More importantly, return home to forget these issues outside of your own domestic space—or make a difference. She asks us to recycle wood and paper so less trees will have to be cut down and more land can be preserved. We can raise awareness for real tiger behavior, outside of propaganda, and explore peaceful ways to coexist (it can and has been done). We can build bridges between reservations to allow for larger territories and genetic variation, as well as introduce more chital (the tigers main prey) into the reserves. We can remember we too are part of a finely tuned food chain, and be mindful of what we eat; such as those large iced tiger prawns we see in supermarkets that have been taken from Indian rivers, and removed from their natural ecosystem with disastrous effect. Most importantly, we can remember the tiger is a person, not an object, and our visual pleasure, stimulation, and luxurious appetite is a small sacrifice for a tiger’s conservation.