Letting The Tiger Out: How A Zoo Tragedy Helped Me Write My Book

Shortly after Christmas 2007, I went to the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco's North Beach and paid $2 to light a pillar candle. Even though I haven't considered myself a practicing Catholic since the age of 16, I've gone to this shrine multiple times over the years to memorialize those who have died: coworkers, relatives, acquaintances. But on the day in question, I went to the shrine to light a candle for someone I'd never met. In the Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi--my favorite saint, founder of the Franciscan order, patron of animals, redeemer of wolves and rescuer of rabbits--I lit a candle for a Siberian tiger named Tatiana.

Tatiana lived in the San Francisco Zoo from 2003 until Christmas night, 2007, when police shot her through the forehead. Earlier that night, she'd escaped from her enclosure and attacked three young men, killing one and injuring the other two. In the chaotic and litigious aftermath of this incident--the families of the surviving men obtained a celebrity lawyer who eventually extracted a $900,000 settlement from the zoo--I was haunted by the profane ignominy of the tiger's death. Not just because she was majestic, not just because she was endangered, but also because I felt there was something fundamentally wrong--sacrilegious and obscene, even--in her mundane and prolonged accessibility to humans in the first place. Her bodily integrity had been grievously violated on a daily basis long before she came face to face with the barrel of a gun on Christmas night.

The incident agitated something in me. I knew I wanted to write a story about a tiger, and this intention incubated in my mind for years. I made false starts, gave up, started again. "That tiger's just pacing around your brain, making a mess in there," a writer friend told me. "You've got to let it out." Eventually, I did. My attempt to make sense of Tatiana's life and death reached its creative culmination in "None of the Above," the final story in my first published book, Death is Not an Option. There's a tiger on the front cover. And the book is dedicated to Tatiana.

"None of the Above" isn't a political story. It's not about habitat preservation. It's not about poaching. It's not about zoos. It's not even really about tigers, per se. As a story, its primary preoccupation is one shared by the other stories in the book: a fixation on Mystery with a capital M. The Catholic Church defines mystery as something that is known by divine revelation, rendering it beyond human understanding. And in my secularized interpretation of the sacrament I was raised with--the one that always made the most sense to me, perfectly comprehensible in its acknowledgment of the unfathomable--the tiger in the story stands for every hard truth and messy contradiction and terrible revelation we're not ready to look at, in ourselves and in the world. There are other forces of nature in the book--wolves, raccoons, rabbits, toads, tornadoes--and they all inflict a measure of chaos on my characters' lives. And each character--Catholic schoolgirls, memoirists, elementary school teachers, social workers--balks before the things they don't know, the things they don't want to know, and the things they have no right to know. Burdened and isolated by unwanted and inexplicable knowledge, one of my narrators looks upon the blissful ignorance of her loved ones: "I see them navigating their way in the world, unwitting, before the power I choose not to wield."

I didn't light that candle or dedicate my book to Tatiana out of anthropomorphous sentimentality. I don't imagine her basking in a celestial tundra, replete with white rabbits and glacial reflecting pools, reaping divine rewards for her martyrdom. Instead, I take comfort in the knowledge that death restored to Tatiana her rightful unknowability. Her essential tigerness, indefinable and brutal in its solitude, is its own divine flame. I'm reminded of the comedian Chris Rock, who used to do a bit about the Siegfried & Roy white tiger attack of 2003. It went something like this: "Everybody's mad at the tiger, talking about 'That tiger went crazy.' That tiger didn't go crazy. That tiger went tiger!"

I think St. Francis would have concurred. "Sisters and brothers," I imagine him saying to Tatiana, to the white tiger, to all things cold-eyed and innocent, great and small, staring down the wrong end of a rifle, "we hardly should have known ye."