I’ve never heard of a tiger being shipwrecked, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Animals are moved regularly between zoos, usually by boat – air travel is too expensive. Unlike in the film, though, zoo animals don’t travel in cages in the ship’s hold. They’re usually in crates at the back of specially built transit vans; the other passengers on the ship don’t know they’re there.
I was impressed with the film-makers’ grasp of tiger behaviour. So many elements are just right: the way the tiger flattens his ears back and lifts his head when he’s cross (anyone with a cat at home will recognise that one); the “chuffing” noise he makes, like a small cough, as a greeting.
At Chester Zoo, where I work, we would never feed our tigers live goats, as Pi’s father does in the film, to show him why you can’t trust wild animals. Providing live prey as feed is illegal and unethical. But I do agree with his wider point that you shouldn’t anthropomorphise animals. They get scared, sure, and they develop social attachments – but I don’t think two animals can love each other.
The tiger in the film is called Richard Parker. I’ve never come across an animal with a full human name like that, though at Chester we have a red river hog called Richard, and a zebra called Brian. Our tigers are called Kirani and Fabi. When Kirani arrived, she was particularly aggressive. I spent a long time sitting with her, reading her extracts from the New Scientist to calm her down. It did the trick.
Pi does all the right things when trying to train Richard Parker using food and vocal commands as positive reinforcement, for instance, to get him to stay in certain parts of the boat. We use similar techniques on our tigers, but over a much longer period of time – and certainly not in such a confined space. It’s very unlikely anyone would survive that long in a tiny boat with a tiger.
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