Friday 10th October 2003
Roger collected his knighthood yesterday, and this news report has him in a typical self-deprecatory mood, but I particularly enjoyed this comment:
"It was like a costume drama and I was Sir Ivanhoe - a part I have played, incidentally".
Monday 6th October 2003
It's likely that the majority of the reasons for my particular affection for the tiger (and I'm talking the animal, not the beer) are rooted firmly in either childishness or simplicity. While as a child I never had a specific liking for Frosties (I suspect the case to conserve the Honey Monster is less convincing) I've always been an avid reader of Calvin & Hobbes (the comic strip, not the theologian and philosopher) and have always maintained that if I were a character in the His Dark Materials trilogy my daemon would be a young tiger, with oversized paws. And, aesthetically, tigers, young or fully grown, are immediately appealing - for most people (unless you're a sweaty scout-master) the word 'cub' elicits the image of a mewling ball of fur with little sense of co-ordination and oversized paws (again), while the beauty and majesty of of a fully grown tiger is difficult to ignore. And, in addition to the above, my fondness for tigers is wrapped up in a slightly painful childhood memory.
I can't have been much older than six. My class were preparing for 'our' assembly - every class had to do one: put on some kind of entertainment one morning, for the rest of the school. We were planning to do a presentation on endangered species - we all had to pick a threatened animal and write a paragraph to read out on the big day (no doubt in a high-pitched monotone, giving no allowance to full stops or commas and swinging our arms self-consciously as we spoke). I chose the tiger, Ian chose the panda bear and, after being gently talked out of picking the worm, Edward picked the elephant. I clearly remember putting the finishing touches to my little speech on tigers, and pritt-sticking a picture of a roaring tiger on to my script, seemingly oblivious of the fact that no-one was going to see it but me. As well as preparing our paragraph we spent what seemed like weeks stapling together lots of cardboard to make one long carboard box, which we then painted bright blue - apart from daubing the word 'Danger' in black on the side. This was for the opening of our assembly, our teacher, Miss Huntingford, proudly explained. Darren and Andrew were going to open the proceedings by discussing that the most dangerous animal in the world was contained in the box. What could it be - a snake? A lion? Then out of the box would climb Ben Freeman, demonstrating that, in fact, Man was the world's most dangerous creature. This was ironic, since Ben was the child systematically beaten up in the playground every breaktime.
With this stunning coup de theatre planned, it seemed little could go wrong. All the same we rehearsed - after the reveal the rest of us were to stand in a line on the stage and say our piece. First it was Nick the Bully, then Ian, then me, then Edward and so on. We read our parts in order and our excitement mounted. Miss Huntingford said that if we weren't sure what to do on the big day, she would be sitting at the back and if we looked at her she would silently mouth us directions.
Finally, that fateful morning in the spring of 1985 (probably) came around. As a class we all entered the school gym, each clutching the precious scraps of paper containing our lines, and assembled on the stage. Gradually the rest of the school came in, settled and the fun began. The box scenario was played out, and then Nick stepped foward. 'The-rhino-saurus-is'n-ani-mal-wich-lives-inaf-ric-a,' and so on. Then he finished, and I waited patiently for Ian to start his bit. But there was silence. I looked at Ian. He was looking at me. More silence. I looked to the back of the gym - there was Miss Huntingford, mouthing frantically at me, 'You go, your turn'. More silence. I thought for a second, remembering that it wasn't me who was supposed to go next, it was Ian. So I said so. In the middle of the performance, in front of the whole school, I said, 'No it's not me Miss Huntingford, it's Ian! It's his go!'. More silence, broken only my the odd sniff and snigger. I looked at Miss Huntingford - her face was like thunder. I looked down at my script, and fighting to read it through eyes blurring with tears, I said my bit. Just then, my dog-eared roaring tiger, cut out as carefully as a left-handed six- year-old can from a World Wildlife Fund magazine, was my only friend in a room of over one hundred people.
And so I've maintained my personal link with the tiger. I've also maintained that I was in the right - it wasn't my turn to speak. Of course there are countless threatened species in the world, and to adopt one as a pet cause is to ignore many others, and it's difficult to go on about, for example, the plight of tigers, without being conscious of this fact, and also without acknowledging the ill-educated anthropomorphic reasons that form much of the basis of my interest in the animals. But they are seriously threatened - at the risk of regurgitating my school talk (although in the 19 years since I scrawled that down the numbers will have changed), 100 years ago there were 100,000 tigers in the world, split into 8 sub-species. Today there are between 5,000-7,500 (maximum) tigers left - divided into 5 sub-species (3 are already extinct). The destruction of the tiger population is down to the steady eradication of their habitat - which in turn leads to the fragmentation of their population: groups are split up, communities become smaller and tigers are forced to inbreed, weakening their gene pool. Another major factor is poaching - Chinese traditional medicine provides a strong demand for various parts of the tiger. For example, the bones are used to treat rheumatism, the eyes - epilepsy, the brain - laziness and acne, the tail - skin diseases while the whiskers are used both as a 'cure' for toothaches and good luck charms. There is, of course, a strong movement to try and stem the gradual disappearence of tigers in the wild. Potential solutions and ways in which people can help can be found on countless webites, such as www.tigersincrisis.com - but at the same time there are plenty of easily located websites where you can buy tigers on-line. Governments have attempted to make inroads into the poaching problem, with varying degrees of success - for instance, the tiger is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an agreement signed by over 120 countries, which seeks to crack down on the illegal trade of animals and plants.
Then, there is always the argument that one of the most effective ways to protect a species is to remove it from its natural habitat and keep it in a controlled environment, such as a zoo. Whether this is an effective mechanism towards conservation, or simply a cynical way for zoos to justify the caging of animals is a heavily debated topic, and I'm not entirely sure of the rights and wrongs, but I'll admit to enjoying both the London and Bristol zoos, which seem to have a genuine conservation programme in action. However, there are two reasons for which an animal is taken out of the wild and kept in captivity which I think are cruel and wrong.
The first is to keep it as a pet, as highlighted by this almost unbelievable story concerning a fully grown Bengal tiger - and a crocodile - kept in in a Harlem flat. The 'owner' of these creatures was found out only when he was attacked by the tiger and had to go to hospital. The BBC story claims that an estimated 10,000 tigers are kept privately by US citizens - enough to almost double the population that currently exists in the wild. I find this pretty disgraceful especially as, and I may be wrong, I doubt the majority of these pets are allowed to breed or are given the space they need to live in. I can't imagine the flat in Harlem contained a roof terrace the size of the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, for example.
A few of the 10,000 tigers in the mostly unscrupulous hands of private owners must belong to Siegfried and Roy, providers of perhaps the most out-of-date, tasteless and irrelevant examples of mainstream live 'entertainment' doing the rounds today. And this is the second reason for which tigers are taken out of the wild that I'm failing not to sound sanctimonious about - entertainment. I think it's safe to say that in the UK you'd be hard pressed to find a circus or cabaret act that used wild animals - but you only need to cross the channel to find that even the shabbiest two-bit circuses in France own a couple of lions, as well as a few monkeys for good measure - last year I sat incredulous in a grotty big top erected on a car park in a small town in the Dordogne, as a Shetland pony scampered in circuits around the small ring, being ridden by a little monkey.
I read that Siegfried - or is it Roy - has finally been mauled by one of their tigers. While of course wishing the mulletted German a speedy recovery, I hope perhaps this may make them, their fans and anyone else who has no qualms about using wild animals in such a way, realise that the animals simply don't like it - no, the fact he's wagging his tail doesn't mean he's enjoying it, and no, the fact he's drawing his top lip over his teeth doesn't mean that he's smiling at all you lovely folks out there, give yourselves a round of applause...
However, I will, of course, reserve the right to expect my dog to come when he's called and react in kind to my good-humoured taunting.