A tiger lurked in the tall grass at a park in India as gamekeepers tried to shoot it with a dart gun and missed. The cat sprang from the grass, sailed through the air and attacked a man on an elephant’s back.
The man lost three fingers.
“I could never imagine that a tiger could so effortlessly leap from the ground onto an adult elephant’s head, which is at least 12 feet above the ground,” Vivek Menon, executive director of Wildlife Trust of India, said of the 2004 attack, a video of which has been circulating via YouTube.
That attack -- along with other examples of explosive encounters with tigers -- are stoking a debate that began after a 350-pound Siberian tiger climbed over the 12 1/2 -foot wall around its pen at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day and mauled three visitors, killing one.
Among the questions experts are asking: How high can tigers jump? And have zoos and sanctuaries dangerously underestimated tigers?
That is to say: Are the walls high enough?
“We are evaluating that right now,” said Vernon Weir, a director of the American Sanctuary Assn., which has about 35 members, only a few of which have big cats. The association accredits sanctuaries, and in the past has recommended 12-foot fences.
Similarly, the Assn. of Zoos & Aquariums, which accredits the nation’s zoos, may adjust its 16.4-foot height recommendation for tigers once it learns fully what happened in San Francisco, spokesman Steve Feldman said.
In San Francisco, the wall was 12 1/2 feet -- well below the accrediting association’s minimum. But several other major U.S. zoos appear to meet or exceed the standards, with high walls topped in many cases with electrified wire or overhangs to prevent tigers from pulling themselves up and over the side.
Animal experts said they weren’t aware of hard numbers about the precise leaping ability of tigers. They said it depended on the animal and whether it had been taunted, as may have happened in the San Francisco case. But Feldman said his organization’s 16.4-foot figure was based on expert opinions.
There are well-publicized examples of tigers’ phenomenal leaping ability.
In an incident at a national park in Nepal in 1974, an enraged Bengal tiger protecting her cubs mauled a researcher who had climbed into a tree. The tiger managed to climb onto a 15-foot-high limb.
“She just went right up, and she didn’t have much to hold onto. She clearly made that jump without much problem,” said Mel Sunquist, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida and an expert on tigers.
Sunquist, who published an account of the Nepal attack in a book he co-wrote, “Tiger Moon: Tracking the Great Cats in Nepal,” said he wasn’t surprised by the news that a tiger had gotten out of its enclosure at the zoo.
“I saw what a tigress can do,” he said. “If they can get a purchase on anything, they can get up there.”
Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s program in Russia, said he had seen tigers do unusual things, such as climbing to the top of large trees when incensed -- which tigers don’t normally do.
“What animals normally do, and what they can do, are often very different things,” he said.
The Christmas Day attack was not the first report of a tiger getting out of its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo.
A retired entomologist in Kuranda, Australia, said he accompanied the zoo director when he decided to test the big cat enclosure one evening in 1959. David Rentz, who was 17 at the time, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the director dangled a piece of meat on a pole on the side of the exhibit’s 33-foot-wide dry moat.
“Once the tiger saw it, he literally flew across the moat from his position on the other side, grabbed the meat, and sprung back to the grotto all in one graceful movement,” Rentz wrote in a Web posting.
Several years later, another tiger got past the same moat and was found in bushes next to a low railing that separates the animals from the public, retired zookeeper John Alcaraz told the Associated Press. Alcaraz was with fellow zookeeper Jack Castor when they came upon the tiger.
“Jack yelled at him, ‘Get outta here!’ He was all very quiet, and he responded to the yelling,” said Alcaraz, who first told his story to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. “We put water in the moat, 2 feet of water, and we never had problems again.”
Zoo spokesman Sam Singer said officials were not aware of either incident at the enclosure, which was built in 1940.
The Assn. of Zoos & Aquariums said it had 216 accredited members, with 258 tigers among them. Only five were born in the wild; tigers in captivity generally cannot jump as high as those that are in top condition from hunting.
Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist and chairman of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Texas, oversees 24 tigers at his sanctuary, including an 11-year-old Bengal-Siberian tiger that weighs about 550 pounds and extends about 11 feet paw-to-paw when it stretches like a housecat.
Dorfman said his tigers have never tried to scale their fences, but warned: “With provocation, they’re capable of unbelievable aggression and power. These cats are a combination of strong instincts, strong emotion and no inhibition.”
Zoo visitors running back and forth can resemble prey to a tiger. Throwing objects at a tiger or dangling something also can trigger its predatory instincts.
“First and foremost, people need to be educated,” said Jonathan Kraft, who runs Keepers of the Wild in Arizona, which has more than 20 tigers. “We need to respect them accordingly.”
A lawyer for the two men who were injured in the San Francisco attack maintains that they did nothing to provoke the tiger.