To Be One With a Tiger

By Jennifer Williams

When it comes to getting up close and personal with wild animals —“Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh my!” — I’m with Dorothy and her friends. I’m petrified.

Of course, some tenacious individuals feel differently, and seek these animals out in their natural habitat to conduct research or capture breathtaking photos. But me, about the closest I want to get to these creatures is through metal bars or the like, inside the safety of a zoo.

A few weeks ago, 25-year-old David Villalobos managed to turn his visit to the Bronx Zoo into the kind of life threatening experience I have nightmares about. While riding on the Wild Asia Monorail, which gives zoo-goers a bird’s-eye view into many of the animals’ habitats, Mr. Villalobos leapt into the den of a tiger named Bachuta, out of desire, he later explained, “to be one with the tiger.” He suffered many injuries as a result of his 17-foot fall, and because Bachuta, apparently not appreciative of his den-crashing guest, mauled him.

Mr. Villalobos was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, and another lesser charge of trespass.

The media reported the story, which made the front pages of our local papers. But nobody but LASIS stopped to consider whether a man who willingly jumped into danger could hold the zoo liable for making his jump so easy.

Zoos have have known the occasional mishap, usually because the animal was provoked or the victim intruded into the animal’s territory.

In 2007, a tiger leapt out of her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo killing a 17-year-old boy and injuring two of his friends. The boys sued, and despite evidence that the three boys had provoked the tiger, the zoo settled the case, most likely because it was determined that Tatiana the Tiger’s walled enclosure was lower than the recommended height.

Because Bachuta didn’t leap out of his enclosure at the Bronx Zoo (indeed, the only one doing the leaping was Mr. Villalobos), this case wouldn’t really help Mr. Villalobos should he decide to sue.

A 1960 New York case involved a four-year-old girl whose father held her up on a railing so that she could feed monkeys at Sterling-Alaska Fur & Game Farms in Lake Placid, NY. The largest monkey in the cage reached out, grabbed the girl’s hand, and took a bite. When her father sued the zoo, the court found that “a keeper of wild animals may be exonerated from liability for injuries caused by them, if the injured party imprudently or negligently places himself in a position to be attacked.”

Sound familiar?

A quick look at the Bronx Zoo website left me longing to ride atop the rolling, lush landscape as the monorail travels along the Bronx River and offers passengers a thrilling view of the zoo’s residents. But my desire came to a screeching halt when I saw that the monorail passes over the (gulp) tiger area.  The only thing keeping a passenger in is a waist level (for an adult of average height) steel handrail.

Maybe there is some liability on the zoo’s part, after all.

New York Practice Guide for Negligence states that generally, “the owner or keeper of a wild animal is absolutely liable for any injury it causes because he is presumed to know of its unpredictability and viciousness.” Absolute liability is a legal responsibility for damages or injuries regardless of fault.

An exception, however, is created for a place like a zoo whose purpose is to educate the public, and which is given a charter from the Legislature. In such a case, the standard of ordinary negligence applies, so anyone suing after being, say, mauled by a tiger on a fine afternoon, must show that the zoo had been negligent.

To establish negligence, Mr. Villalobos would have to show that : 1) the zoo had duty; 2) the zoo breached that duty; 3) the breach of that duty caused his injuries; 4) he was, in fact injured; and 5)  the injury was foreseeable.

In 1952, the Court of Appeal of California determined that a man who leaned over protective wires to feed a polar bear at the San Francisco Zoological Gardens could have no relief from the zoo. The polar bear bit the man’s hand and arm, leaving him severely injured. The court found that no visitor intrusion (holla, Mr. Villalobos!) into an animal’s cage could have been reasonably anticipated.

After a few days worrying that Bachuta may have been traumatized from Mr. Villalobos’ unannounced visit, he was put back on display. And though we haven’t spoken to the tiger personally, we’re pretty sure he wouldn’t like it if he knew people could hurl themselves into his home, and then make money on the stunt.

Rest easy, Bachuta. If your uninvited guest sued, he’d find his chances of success far from Grrreat.

UPDATE: January 11, 2013: Mr. Villalobos pleads not guilty to trespassing charges. Good luck with that, mr. Villalobos.



3 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    Thankfully the tiger wasn’t killed. It seems like a lot of the time the animal has to be killed to save the idiot who went in it’s cage.

  2. Heather says:


  3. Mariana says:

    I agree. This guy probably has severe mental problems. It’s cruel enough to take animals outside of their natural environment and put them in zoos. It’s even crueler to kill these animals when they behave exactly like what they are (wild animals), and in this case, the tiger didn’t even go out of its way — it was just sitting in its home when the guy plopped down.

    I was worried they’d kill the tiger but so happy they didn’t.

    I wonder if the zoo would have killed the tiger if it had killed the guy. Probably.

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