Sunday, July 3, 2011



IN separate incidents of naked aggression our cat Booboo has recently scratched both of my small children.

Booboo is generally a timid and affectionate animal. There’s nothing of the wild cat left in our little bundle of fluff but he maintains a few rules, which he is prepared to defend with extreme prejudice.

One of Booboo’s rules is: don’t poke me in the eye. Another is: don’t try to grope me where you had me done. As soon as my children learn to abide by these modest requirements Booboo will respond with friendly nuzzles and purrs.

If they don’t mess with him, in other words, he won’t mess with them. This seems like an obvious lesson for children to learn but you’d be amazed how many grown-ups fail to observe it. Not just around domestic animals but around wild animals which as the name suggests are, like, totally wild.

The already bulging annals of attacks on humans by undomesticated animals in unnatural settings were swollen still further last week with the tragic news of snake breeder Luke Yeomans’s death from a heart attack after he was bitten by a king cobra at the snake sanctuary he planned to open in Eastwood, Notts.

Mr Yeomans, who was photographed kissing his snakes and said they would never hurt him, was known as “the Steve Irwin of Eastwood”. Irwin, the daring Aussie wildlife presenter known as the Crocodile Hunter, was killed in 2006 while filming a stingray. After his death several mutilated stingrays were found dead along the coast in what police called “revenge attacks”.

Animal and human deaths also followed the demise of eco-warrior and “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell, who lived rough on Alaska’s Katmai coast communing with brown bears. In 2003 he and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and partially eaten after years of warnings from conservationists and scientists. “He kept insisting he wanted to show that bears in thick brush aren’t dangerous,” said Chuck Bartlebaugh, of a national bear awareness campaign. “The last two people killed by bears in Glacier National Park said their goal was to find a grizzly so they could ‘do a Timothy’.”

Another who warned Treadwell was Sterling Miller, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “I told him to be more cautious because every time a bear kills somebody there is a big increase in ‘bearanoia’ and they get killed. Two were killed by rangers retrieving Treadwell’s remains.

“Bearanoia”? Stingray vigilantes? What business do we have in jungle or ocean?

“The things that live in there don’t like us,” goes the Billy Connolly routine. “They sting us, nip us, burn us, they have arms that stick to us and drown us. Our species spent thousands of years getting out and the first thing people do is run back in. They get down there, see a hole, put their hand in. That’s not a hole, that’s his house.”

Animals attack because they feel threatened, they can behave in no other way. Which doesn’t stop those TV compilations of amateur video with titles like When Animals Go Bad. A better title would be When Animals Get Provoked Beyond Endurance as, to the accompaniment of a wacky voiceover and canned laughter, we watch a moose freaking because its space has been invaded by a tourist, or a bullock running amok when it gets separated from its family on a bull run through claustrophobic streets. Wild? I bet he was livid.

It seems there will always be people who believe that the rules of animal-human interaction don’t apply to them. Recently we’ve heard about French zookeeper Pierre Thivillon and his wife, who share their home with a 180lb gorilla.

You may have also seen the pictures of animal trainer Mark Abbot Dumas with his head inside a polar bear’s jaws yet for definitive proof of the old showbusiness adage about never working with animals look no further than Siegfried and Roy. Their exotic cabaret show featuring white lions and tigers was a Las Vegas staple for decades until one night in 2003 Roy was bitten on the neck by Montecore, a seven-year-old male tiger. Montecore was apparently distracted by a woman with a big hairdo in the front row who tried to touch him. Roy intervened, tripped and fell, whereupon the confused cat tried to drag his master to safety as a mother tigress would pull her cub by the neck. Roy was critical for weeks but had Montecore wanted to play rough, mind, he could have snapped Roy’s neck in an instant.

Although it may be possible to train wild animals to do our bidding under certain conditions you can never legislate for that “big hairdo” moment. The animal parks of aristocratic roué John Aspinall are distinguished by the unusually high number of monuments to zookeepers killed in the line of duty.

Aspinall encouraged staff and animals to bond by spending time close together, with deadly results: five zoo staff were killed and several visitors maimed. In 1989 an Aspinall chimpanzee called Bustah ripped off the lower half of a toddler’s arm. five years later, in separate incidents, it tore off the thumb and finger of one keeper and bit off the finger of another.

Chimpanzees, incidentally, are among the most violent animals in any zoo. Captive chimps bite off fingers, gouge eyes, go for testicles

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