There is a framed photograph in my father’s study. It’s a photo of my family taken in the mid-1980s in Genting Highlands, posing with a live tiger. My sisters and I stood in a row, according to height and rank, flanked by our parents.
The tiger sat obediently next to a little me with only a piece of perspex separating us. It was one of those landmark occasions in my childhood as I was obsessed with animals and was certain I would grow up to be either a veterinarian or zoologist.
The tiger was huge and majestic, and there was something about it that was loveable and cuddly. Perhaps I even fantasized owning tigers of my own. Can you imagine having cute little tiger cubs running around your house, playing with balls of yarn and chasing butterflies in the garden?
I forgive myself for being a naive child. My parents were too polite to quash my dreams and they let me discover for myself that tigers are not pets and that I really wasn’t cut out to be a vet or zoologist.
I love my parents and I know they meant well when they took us to see the tiger that day—and the killer whales and dolphins at Sea World, and countless other animals in zoos and aquariums elsewhere. They were like a lot of urban parents today.
But it makes me cringe now knowing that many of those animals were likely hunted and then sold to people whose business was to make money out of curious children and their gullible parents. How did the tiger we saw end up at Genting Highlands that day? Legally? Illegally? I don’t know.
“The tiger you saw was also probably sedated,” a friend told me one day. The thought of that makes me sad. The things we do to animals in order to satisfy our sadistic lust for entertainment, I would only discover in my adult life.
Looking back I do wish my parents had talked to us a bit more about the ugly side of animals living in captivity but I think that was not a big part of their generation’s consciousness. Perhaps the struggle in the 1980s was simply to keep animals alive and not so much to care for their wellbeing.
It could be that animal rights and wildlife conservation were not popular issues then to have affected them as profoundly as these issues affect my generation today. Perhaps the Internet, which my parents did not have 20 years ago, has done wonders to educate my generation.
We receive updates from animal advocacy groups and exposés about government personnel cooperating with hunters, poachers and wildlife traders. We also get to participate in online initiatives like the Tiger Blogfest.
Thanks to the Internet animal rights groups today have cheap, direct and quick access to ordinary citizens via email, websites and social media networks which have helped raise awareness of animal welfare and conservation.
Combine that with the global trend of ‘going green’ and you find the media and government forced to hop on the bandwagon. Or have they? Laws and policies notwithstanding, enforcement agencies and local communities are still cooperating with wildlife traders.
Our national pride, the pribumi Malayan tiger, continues to live in crisis as their continued existence is threatened by unsustainable development and traditional medicine wizards. We know this because we have read about it in the newspapers.
But collectively we have not been moved to address this concern. Perhaps we see no urgent need to demand their conservation because they’re still being exhibited in zoos and animal parks around the country. We don’t even care that some of these facilities are badly maintained.
What’s our excuse then? We have the Internet and 24-hour documentary channels on television both telling us that our endangered friends need our urgent help; and that by helping them we are actually helping ourselves because in some divine and scientific way, we are interdependent.
As for our tigers, are we waiting for them to be extinct like their distant cousin, the Tasmanian wolf tiger? Embarrassing will be the day when we have to explain to the world we have failed to protect the Malayans that pose grandly on our national coat of arms and whose stripes we wear proudly to the Olympics.
But I have hope in Malaysians. I know we can change because I have seen that change in my own household. As my sisters and I become more involved in reading and sharing information about animal rights and wildlife conservation, our mother takes note and alters her take on the issue according to zaman.
The tiger is our national animal. Our heritage. But today only less than 500 of them remain in the wild. As Malaysians, we need to stand up and protect our heritage.
Speak to your children. Speak to your leaders. Everyone of us can make a difference.