Of Rampaging Ligers, Molasses Floods and Exploding Lakes

State Senator Troy Balderson is proposing restrictions on ownership of exotic animals. He is reacting to a terrible tragedy in which an apparently disturbed man who collected wild animals released them and then committed suicide. To protect the public, the authorities had to shoot some rare Bengal tigers and other innocent, magnificent beasts.

I am confident that with this law passed, such an incident will not recur. However, I am also confident that it won’t recur if the law isn’t passed, and, that irrespective of whether it passes or not, something equally awful and weird that has nothing to do with exotic animals will happen in the future.

It is difficult to accept that bizarre and heartbreaking things happen. Mass death is frightening; even moreso when it seems so strange and unlooked for.

In Boston in 1919, 21 people lost their lives due to a molasses flood. In 1986, a lake in Cameroon erupted, releasing a massive cloud of carbon dioxide that suffocated 1700 people. In both cases, people scrambled to prevent a recurrence (a lawsuit about defective molasses tanks in Boston, some underwater carbon dioxide draining experiments in Cameroon).

That human beings have the impulse to prevent “the next one” is part of the settled order of nature and therefore not to be bemoaned. But by definition the next completely unpredictable tragedy is one that none of us can conceive of, or prevent, right now. We just have to go through life hoping that we will not be ravaged by a marauding liger, drowned in a sea of molasses, or strangled by an exploding lake.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

23 thoughts on “Of Rampaging Ligers, Molasses Floods and Exploding Lakes”

  1. You are probably correct that this specific incident wouldn’t be repeated, new law or no. But do you have any objection to laws regulating the ownership of and conditions for enormous predators? Or restrictions on the keeping as pets or as curiosities representatives of endangered species? Isn’t it already illegal to transport endangered animals across international borders, with the legality of owning them within those borders something of a loophole?

    1. I claim no knowledge of the public policy issues surrounding exotic animals, runaway molasses or lakes that disgorge carbon dioxide. I assume people who do will make some policy change efforts as they see fit and I hope they are good ones. But whether such efforts produce good laws or bad laws (or no laws), the uncertainty of human existence will remain with us, always, which is what I was writing about.

      1. Isn’t that something that could have been said about the time of Jenner?

        Way too often, a look at the background of “freak” accidents shows that they’re not freak at all, just momentarily visible symptoms of problems that have been ignored till someone got a good headline. There’s a long list of deaths and disfigurements from large and medium-sized predators kept at home. And was a long list of people killed and neighborhoods destroyed by badly-built, ill-inspected giant storage tanks.

        A look at the air transport industry strongly suggests that these kinds of laws and regulations aren’t about suddenly wanting to do something about headline-grabbing unlikely accidents, but rather about people who have been pushing for safety improvements for a long time making use of the headlines to override opposition (principled or otherwise) to their work. Energy-absorbing seat frames, cabin-floor exit light, nontoxic flame-resistant interiors — each of these was essentially stalled until there was a “freak” accident with dozens of bodies to clean up. We just don’t see the preliminary steps unless we’re involved in that particular sector.

      2. Whether they produce good laws or bad laws, they produce laws. In a country where there are already too many laws for it to be humanly possible to know what it’s legal to do, that’s a problem.

        Like meteor proof roofs, the best response to extremely rare events is generally no response at all.

        1. But see Paul’s comment.

          Less spectacular versions of “rare” disasters are not uncommon, and that means that the spectacular version, while possibly rare, is also likely to happen once or twice.

          Is it really an unacceptable infringement on liberty to prevent people from keeping tigers as pets?

          1. Yeah. Basically, the default should be for everything to be legal, barring a good reason to the contrary. I don’t see a good reason why owning exotic pets should be illegal.

            Now, requiring people who own tigers to maintain good fences, that is reasonable. But, of course, most do already.

          2. You don’t??

            Gee, how about the possibility that the tiger might escape?

            Require good fences? How good? Strong enough to withstand a tornado or an earthquake? And of course libertarian types will object to having to register their pet tigers so (shudder) government inspectors can come around and check, not to mention that they will complain about the taxes (theft, I tell you!!) needed to pay the inspectors.

            Sorry Brett, but you’re mad. Having a pet tiger, regardless of any rules you suggest, poses an unacceptable risk to those living nearby.

          3. A conclusion you have based on your starting premise, that people shouldn’t be permitted to have them as pets.

            Do zoos manage to have sufficient fencing? Here’s my counter offer: Permit private ownership of exotics, or ban zoos.

            Be consistent, in other words.

          4. OK then. You can have an exotic pet as long as you do the sorts of things modern zoos do, with regard to space, security, care for the animals, etc.

            The Oklahoma City Zoo’s tiger exhibit in Cat Forest is enclosed with special mesh made of a steel and fabric combination, Castro said. The mesh, designed specifically to hold large animals like tigers, extends about 22 feet high in the Cat Forest exhibit. A low-voltage hot wire circles the area, he said. A guardrail keeps visitors 5 feet away from the exhibit.

            In the lion exhibit, and in other areas, onlookers are separated from the animals by panes of specialty glass, Castro said.

            “It’s a very, very thick type of glass,” he said.

            “It’s made in such a way that it can take a tremendous hit to the glass and there’s no way the animal can get out. … You want to have those special viewing points, and you always want to ensure the animals can’t get to the public.”

            ….Oklahoma City Zoo workers practice safety drills about twice a month, Castro said. Scenarios range from snake bites to tornadoes.

            If a dangerous animal escapes, zoo workers can arrive at the scene in about two minutes, Castro said. Security guards close off all entrances and other staff members move visitors into secured buildings. Veterinarians and firearms teams respond to the scene.

            “We would hope that we’d get to immobilize the animal,” he said, “but we do have people trained to handle large firearms.”

            If you want to do for all that, and pay for it, I guess you can have a tiger.

            Be consistent, not to mention rational, in other words.

          5. I hope this comment ends up at the end of the queue, where it belongs, and if not, my apologies.

            The other thing zoos do, that I don’t imagine private owners can or will do, is work toward the preservation of endangered species, through such efforts as breeding programs with other zoos, scientific research, support for programs that protect the animals’ original, wild habitat, etc. But those are activities that protect the animals, not necessarily humans, and I imagine Brett is even more uninterested in the welfare of other species than he is in the welfare of humans.

    2. Well, clearly we’d be better off if our constitution guaranteed a right to keep and arm bears.

      (I’m very, very sorry, Keith and Warren, but it just had to be said. 🙂 )

        1. Sadly, Great Britain is a Colbert-free zone [1] (and therefore not as great as it could be). The same goes for the Daily Show. I have already explained to my husband that this alone is is reason enough to move back to America at the earliest opportunity and that Blackadder reruns are an insufficient consolation prize [2].

          Luckily, for the technically savvy there are workarounds. Using a VPN, I can make the Comedy Central servers believe that I am actually watching from an American location and can at least watch the shows on the internet. That’s not quite the same as watching it live on TV, but it’s an adequate replacement. Mostly.

          [1] We can receive satellite channels from most European countries here with a bit of effort (requires receiving signals from multiple satellites that aren’t all in the same position), but all of them seem to be Colbert-deprived [3].
          [2] Not that there’s anything wrong with Blackadder, but you can get Blackadder on DVD and take it wherever you want (though you have to account for region codes).
          [3] Still worth it if you want to keep your foreign language skills (German or French in particular) up to date.

  2. Isn’t this the classic “availability error”, where people are trying to solve the last big problem e.g. France in 1939 preparing for a tactical re-run of World War I, a spurned lover marrying on the rebound to the first available partner, Cold War politicians seeing Hitler, Chamberlain and Munich whenever a tin-pot dictator rattled a sabre?

    1. France did no such thing. Yet another military history myth rears its head. What happened wasn’t a tactical failure at all. It was a combination of an intelligence failure (several of them, actually) and the fact that the French officer corps feared socialism in their own ranks almost as much as they feared the Germans.

  3. “a lawsuit about defective molasses tanks in Boston”

    IIRC, the end result was trivial damages.

    1. I don’t want to make you jealous, but at the Edinburgh Airport there are signs telling you NOT to take your shoes off unless you’re explicitly asked to by a security officer. No TSA goons and visual stripsearch machinery (a.k.a. bodyscanners), either. They still make you take out laptops and liquids, but I can live with that.

      That almost makes up for not getting the Colbert Report over here (see my comment above). Almost.

  4. Ohio used to have a ton of incredibly sketchy and horrible businesses that were, essentially, one-tiger zoos. A bunch of bad things happened, similar to but on a smaller scale than the 50-tiger turkey shoot. Then they passed a law (not this one) making those businesses illegal. Now there aren’t any.

    This guy owned a bunch of tigers illegally (but only JUST BARELY illegally) but got his hands on them because nobody bothered to enforce a law that was pretty much toothless anyway. Now they’re going to start enforcing a stronger law. How on earth does that not affect the likelihood of recurrence?

    Laws that criminalize certain actions do not always utterly abolish those actions. Laws that criminalize certain actions do not prohibit every action we wish wouldn’t happen. That doesn’t mean we should nihilistically shrug our shoulders and repent of having bothered to make laws in the first place!

    I guess if there’s a point to all this other than bizarre fatalistic hand-wringing at the cruel uncertainty of life, I’m not seeing it. I’m also not seeing an epidemic of “failure to appreciate that shit happens” out there in the world requiring sage Prof. Humphrey’s correction.

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