Skip to main content

Inside the Tiger Factory

Behold the Marvel of the Animal's Fabrication

ISSUE:  Summer 2015


I have a publicity still for the movie Tales of Terror, a 1962 horror anthology directed by Roger Corman. It depicts the casting call for the trilogy’s second segment, “The Black Cat.” This was a loose adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name. (Just how loose becomes clear when you watch the picture, half of whose plot turns out to have been decanted from “The Cask of Amontillado.”) In diminishing perspective, a queue of women stands expectantly beside a long bungalow. They’re wearing three-quarter-length skirts or housecoats and light cardigans and sunglasses. They look like people who want to be mistaken for movie stars. Each holds, at the end of a leash, a black cat, which lounges at its owner’s feet with an insouciance that will be surprising to anybody who has ever tried to put a cat on a leash. My own attempts at this always ended in mutual irritation and exhaustion, but maybe these cats had been trained.

No similar casting call preceded the shooting of Life of Pi, the vast, color-drenched 3-D spectacle about a boy from India marooned at sea in a small lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, for which Ang Lee won the Academy Award for Best Direction in 2013. Three of the four royal Bengal tigers used in the production were supplied by the veteran animal trainer Thierry Le Portier, who kept them, along with dozens of other animals, at his farm in western France. (The fourth tiger, a male named Jonas, came from a small zoo in Bowmanville, Ontario, and was so mild-mannered that the zoo owner used to bring him home on weekends.) When Le Portier sent Lee headshots of his charges, the director was drawn to one whose forehead had markings that looked like the Chinese character for “king.” This turned out to be the tiger’s name. Accounts of the production tend to dwell on such coincidences. Pi is the kind of film whose insiders describe it as a journey.

Actually, King and his stand-ins only appear in some twenty-three shots in which Richard Parker is alone on-screen, doing the standard things one expects tigers to do: snarling, blinking, yawning, gazing at the camera with the golden-eyed calm of a being who knows he’s at the top of the food chain. (The one departure is a sequence in which the 500-pound creature leaps into the ocean and, in contradiction to everything one knew about cats—though not about tigers, which enjoy it—swims; for a few thrilling seconds, it’s shot from below. With his upheld head and churning legs, he looks both purposeful and exuberant.) Nobody wanted to risk a repeat of the catastrophic moment in 2003 when one of Siegfried and Roy’s big cats broke training and mauled Roy nearly to death. The only time Suraj Sharma, the teenager who played the young Piscine Molitor (Pi) Patel, saw his costars, who had been flown out to the set built at an abandoned airport in Taiwan, was when he watched them on a monitor.

Tigers are the largest of the felidae, with males of some subspecies measuring eleven feet from nose to tail-tip and weighing in at 600 pounds. Females are smaller, with an average weight of 300 pounds, though they have better odds of survival. Tigers range in size from massive Amurs to petite Sumatrans. The most common tiger is the iconic Bengal, who can be found not only in India but Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan. Of course, when it comes to tigers, “common” is a relative term. One sometimes hears Siberians spoken of as white tigers, but this is a misassumption; they’re just paler than their tropical cousins. White tigers occur rarely in nature, and the several hundred in zoos today are mutations bred by human beings. A white tiger is a kind of special effect.

In the remaining Richard Parker footage, what audiences see is a digital simulacrum, constructed, with meticulous care and at staggering expense, with computer graphics (CG) technology. The digital tiger’s creators were Bill Westenhofer, the movie’s visual-effects supervisor, and the VFX company Rhythm & Hues, which won an Oscar for its work. This Richard Parker is the one Pi finds crouching beneath the tarp that covers the bow of the lifeboat; the one that snarls, lunges, and swipes at him with a paw the size of a pie plate. The CG Parker is the one that nearly swallows the boat hook Pi uses to fend him off. It required the labor of 600 animators and took more than a year to make, and it proved so costly that by the time Rhythm & Hues won its Oscar for visual effects, the firm had gone into bankruptcy. When Westenhofer mentioned its plight in his acceptance speech, he was cut short by the theme music from Jaws.

Much of Pi’s considerable publicity centered on its special effects—perhaps logically, considering that the film had no stars, apart from Gérard Depardieu, who makes a cameo as a ship’s cook. What it sold was illusion: Of the film’s 960 shots, 690—one and a half of its two hours—employ visual effects. And which of its illusions was more potent than Richard Parker, a triumph of digital engineering that also chewed the scenery? Because Life of Pi is based on what is essentially a philosophical novel, the big cat was, in the words of one commentator, “a visual representation of a philosophical abstraction.” But it was a representation that throbbed with life. You could hear it breathing. You could smell its catty stench. I couldn’t guess what percentage of the picture’s audience came expressly to see the tiger, as opposed to the cataclysmic storm, the sinking freighter, the phosphorescent breaching whale, the island of meerkats. The tiger was an essential part of the movie’s spectacle, maybe the synechdoche for that spectacle, and it was spectacle that people came to see. 

Every tiger has distinct markings, not just on its fur but on the skin beneath. Its stripes function both as camouflage and calling card, allowing it to slink invisibly through forests and grasslands while identifying it to others of its kind.

On the back of its ears are circular white spots that zoologists think may serve as false eyes, like the ones on the wings of moths and butterflies, warding off other predators that might approach it from behind. When confronted with a threat in front of it, a tiger will rotate its ears so that the spots face forward.

It has fewer teeth than most other carnivores, only thirty compared to a dog’s forty-two. It consumes its prey in indelicate chunks—as much as eighty-eight pounds of meat at a sitting.

One of the striking features of Life of Pi’s publicity is that it treated the tiger as a physical, rather than a virtual, artifact, and advertised its construction as a material process, as if those 600 animators had been working with metal and plasticine instead of strings of ones and zeros. Reading those magazine features, watching those promotional clips, is like following the building of a skyscraper, back when skyscrapers were not yet common features of the cityscape and passersby would stop in their tracks to stare at them.

Before shooting began, Lee and his crew spent a year making a previsualization, or previs: a seventy-five-minute animated film that mapped out each of the ocean scenes from the time Pi’s family leaves India on board an ill-fated freighter to the climactic moment, more than 227 days later, when its sole surviving member is cast onto a beach in Mexico. Not coincidentally, these were the scenes that would use effects. “Shooting 3D is kind of hard, shooting on water is really hard, and so you can’t just go in and get a whole bunch of coverage and figure it out later because we’d still be shooting it,” Tim Squyres, the picture’s editor, told PC Magazine. In contrast to the seamless illusion of the final product, the previs used animation as rough-hewn as Soviet children’s cartoons of the 1960s. Its tiger (which might be the Tiger of International Capitalism) has tiny squinting eyes and a jaw like a hand puppet’s; when it opens its mouth to roar, you wouldn’t be surprised to see that the inside was made of plush. Lee is an intuitive filmmaker, who sums up his method as “We’ll see what happens on set.” But in Life of Pi, he was working with technology so expensive that scenes had to be planned to the last camera angle. Some segments of the previs were even rendered in 3D to convey a better idea of the final product.

During production, most of the Richard Parker scenes were shot with stand-ins. In the absence of a tiger, Sharma and the director circled each other around the lifeboat on all fours while the camera stayed trained on the actor’s taut face. In the scene in which Pi fights off the creature with a boat hook, animation director Eric De Boer took the non-speaking part, grabbing one end of the gaff so the star would have something to struggle against. Sometimes props were used. Late in the picture, when Pi and his shipmate are in danger of starving to death, the boy cradles the cadaverous tiger’s head in his lap. Behind-the-scenes footage shows that what Sharma was holding was a soft, Smurf-blue cloth animal called a “stuffie.” It was stripped out in post-production. Before opening Pi in India, which has strict laws against the exploitation of its national animal, Lee had to show this clip to officials to reassure them that no real tiger had been mistreated in the making of his film.


Tigers in the wild are mostly solitary. They do, however, communicate with one another through calls, scent, and claw markings, a kind of remote sociality that allows individuals to know and make themselves known to others they may never meet. They wrap themselves around trees and score bark six feet above the ground; they gouge small trenches in the earth. They announce their presence in the forest with a low, throaty boom. The poet Ruth Padel, who traveled through the last remaining habitats of wild tigers in Asia, describes it as what a drum would sound like “if a drum could moan.” Phonetically, you might spell the sound aaaOOM, which so closely approximates the Indian sacred syllable that one might plausibly claim the chant originated in an attempt at imitation. Tigers also roar, growl, hiss, and cough. A sound of friendly greeting is the “chuff,” a closed-mouth snort that also goes by the German prusten. You sometimes hear tigers in zoos chuffing to their keepers.

Females live in stable home territories with their cubs, which they raise devotedly until the offspring reach maturity. While the cubs are young, their mother rarely lets them out of her sight except to hunt, hiding them carefully in the brush and moving them often to protect them from predators. (When a female Sumatran at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, gave birth to two cubs in August 2013, zoo personnel were pleased to see she didn’t move them; it meant she felt secure.) At between nineteen and twenty-eight months, juveniles disperse to seek out territories of their own, traveling as far as sixty miles. Young females often stake out ranges adjacent to their mother’s. Males have to travel farther; it’s one of the reasons for their higher mortality. Typically, a male’s range overlaps those of three or four females, with which he breeds until he is driven off by another male. His average tenure is a mere thirty-two months, though one tiger on the Chitwan reserve held his territory for six years and sired fifty-one cubs during that time. On occupying a new territory, a male will often kill the resident female’s cubs before he mates with her. And although in popular lore a tigress fights for her young to the death, the truth is that if the newcomer succeeds in killing them, she goes into heat for him.

It was only in postproduction that the CG tiger came into being, arriving like some reclusive, high-priced star who doesn’t show up to do his scenes until the end of the shoot. It was assembled in layers, from the core outward. Much of the work was done on a streamlined wire frame, similar to the ones used in the design of cars and aircraft. “You have a version of the model that you can push and pull in the computer around the shape until it looks right,” Westenhofer explained to the Los Angeles Times’ Cristy Lytal. “And then there’s an artist who lays in all the muscles and figures out when the arms move around, how they fire and how the skin folds and moves. And then someone else lays in the hair, and there are 10 million hairs put on the tiger, and she’s got to paint in the colors and the way it wrinkles and folds. So you work on a version, you compare it to the real thing, and you go month after month until it looks right.”

There were two teams of animators. One was assigned to build a rough model of a tiger, working by hand, the way animators did until the mid-1990s. They started with a functional skeleton that allowed them to visualize the animal’s joints and pivot points so they could anticipate how it would move. To this they added a layer of textured skin, producing a prototype that had stripes but no fur or muscle, and looked, in Westenhofer’s words, “like a tiger that’s been shaved.” It didn’t have to be convincing, just plausible enough to serve as a guide for blocking. The animators’ contributions to the latter were sometimes inspired. Presented with a shot in which Richard Parker is given water in a bucket, they had him hesitate a beat, then tap it cautiously with a forepaw before he drinks, a piece of business so quintessentially feline that the viewer laughs with recognition.

It was the job of the second group, the technical animators, to make the plausible conclusive. On top of the skeleton, they laminated muscle, skin, and fur. (Or, as one has to keep reminding oneself, simulations of them. Even insiders are subject to this error. An animator for PDI/Dreamworks, showing a visitor different versions of the character Shrek, says something about its skull, then corrects herself: “Actually, it’s just numbers.”) They peeled off the stripes like decals and replaced them with a grid to help fine-tune how the skin would stretch or contract during movement. The team spent hundreds of hours replicating the way the leg muscles would bunch before the big cat leaped, the ripple that would pass up its limbs when it touched down, the sway of the tent of loose skin beneath its stomach as it walked away. They set out to recreate the “subsurface scatter” of light passing through the outer layer of its fur and refracting off the one beneath, so that when Richard Parker crouched on the lifeboat’s orange benches, his coat would pick up some of their color.

The most demanding scenes were the ones in which the predator was shown moving in water. To sustain the dream of the movie, each illusion had to affect the other, as if each really possessed weight and mass. The tiger had to part the water as he waded through it; the water had to break and swirl around his moving body, affect the fur differently depending on whether it lay above or below the water’s surface. Tiger and water had been created in different software packages, and Rhythm & Hues had to find a way to get those packages “to talk to each other and to interact,” Westenhofer says. The animators would pass Richard Parker to the simulators, who would make the water respond to the illusions of mass and motion, then pass him back to the animators so they could tinker with his fur, plastering it down where it lay above the surface, making it swish like strands of seaweed where it was submerged.

When you compare the footage of a real tiger (I think it’s King) swimming in real water, and his CG counterpart struggling to stay upright as a simulated torrent dashes him against the stern of the flooded lifeboat, it’s almost impossible to see the difference. And, really, that “almost” is just the writer hedging his bet. 

A tiger in the wild eats fifty large ungulates (or, as Ruth Padel puts it, fifty “large deer-shaped animals”) a year, some 3,000 pounds of meat on the hoof. A female with cubs to feed needs to kill seventy. In India, the prey animals include sambar, muntjac, chital, and the large wild cattle called gaur. In any year, tigers are thought to remove 10 percent of the game in their territory. They typically hunt alone, early in the morning or at dusk and into the night. While they can move quickly for short distances, they’re too heavy for a long chase. They depend on surprise: They creep toward their prey from upwind or lie in wait for it in the high grass beside a watering hole. They are masters of ambush, crouching in stillness for long minutes without a whisker twitching, their heads held low, their ears raised. When the moment arrives, they erupt from cover. The charge is propelled by the hind legs, which overtake the ones in front. The torso stretches impossibly. 

Field biologists describe tigers’ killing style as “plastic,” varying according to the type of prey and its evasive maneuvers. They may seize their victims with their teeth or claws, or with both at once, by the throat or the nape of the neck. Sometimes they attack their prey head on and grip its throat until it asphyxiates; this may take up to six minutes, though some seasoned adults have been seen dispatching a victim in as little as one. Sometimes they bring an animal down by the hindquarters, then bite its throat as it falls, twisting its head to the side so as to keep clear of its horns or antlers. The long fangs—at three inches, the longest of any felid’s—are ideally spaced to pry apart a small deer’s cervical vertebrae and snip its spinal cord the way a tailor might bite off a bit of excess thread. A video shows a young female beginning to eat a boar that she took from ambush in a shallow pond. She lies on top of it, grasping it with her claws, and takes tugging bites from the base of its neck. The skin is thick, and sometimes the tiger worries it with such force that she lifts the boar’s head from the ground. The animal, which up until then one had thought dead, opens its wrinkled mouth and screams.


When I first saw the previews of Life of Pi, which were almost impossible not to see in the months before the movie’s release in November 2012, I naïvely thought I was watching a real tiger. It’s embarrassing to admit. I understood that the boy playing Pi was an actor. My naïveté lay in assuming that the tiger was one, too, an animal that had been trained to follow cues and, in this case, not kill and eat his costar. I figured that the boy’s and tiger’s footage had been shot separately, maybe on stages some distance apart, and that it was only skillful cutting that made it appear that the tiger was lunging at the boy or the boy was jabbing a boat hook at the tiger. Another kind of naïveté is to view human acting as pretense and fakery. But I think even the most unsophisticated viewers understand that animals don’t pretend—not, at any rate, the way humans do. This is what gives their performances their charm, and also their authority.

Maybe that’s why those previews always brought me to a state of wonder, the kind that’s always called “childlike.” Specifically, it was the tiger that did that to me, the mute, gold-and-black, white-ruffed mask of his face burning out of the dimness of the tarp-covered lifeboat, then rising toward the viewer as if from beneath the sea, the eyes widening, the lips peeling back in a snarl whose subsonics, broadcast by the speakers of a first-run urban multiplex, made my breastbone vibrate. The fury with which he scrambled across the deck and halfway over the bow. The unfathomable menace of his gaze. Otherwise, Life of Pi looked like something I could live without, too much gorgeousness, too artfully composed, delivered in the interest of uplift.

I don’t remember when I learned it was mostly digital. What I do remember is my disappointment, and the outrage I felt the next time I watched the trailer (probably the last time I watched one). Once more Richard Parker burst from underneath the tarp. Once more he opened his mouth and roared his demiurgical roar. Once more he snapped at the thrusting boat hook. Once more, he strode into the underbrush, without pausing to look back at the broken figure gazing at him from the sand. I watched coldly. The images were spectacularly lifelike, and they were fraudulent. I certainly wasn’t going to see the fucking picture, not even in 3D.

I think of myself as a reasonably savvy grownup, seasoned by decades of moviegoing. So I am puzzled why I gasped at the sight of a tiger in a movie trailer. I’m even more puzzled why, on learning that 86 percent of that tiger—or of the shots of which he was constituted—was brought into being on computer monitors, I felt so angry. Was my outrage about tigers or about digital animation, which in Life of Pi attains such heights of realism that it seems to create a separate reality, not virtual so much as parallel, or other? A reality that supplants the one we knew?

In Hindu iconography, the god Shiva is depicted seated on the skin of a tiger. Some rishis, jealous of their wives’ passion for him, hid a tiger in the forest where Shiva was strolling, in the expectation that the tiger would kill him. But it was the god who triumphed. The tiger is associated with lust, so the image is shorthand for the conquest of desire. This is rather odd, considering that Shiva is so often associated with desire. He’s sometimes known as the Lord of Animals.

One of the jatakas, the stories of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations, tells how, while traveling with a disciple, the bodhisattva came upon a tigress that was so deranged by hunger that she was about to eat her cubs. Moved by pity, he sent the disciple off to fetch food, but then sacrificed himself to the creature, which tore him to shreds. 

Tiger bones have been used in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for muscle pain and epilepsy; tiger penis is prescribed as an aphrodisiac.

Tipu Sultan, the eighteenth-century “Tiger of Mysore,” decorated his palace with murals of British soldiers being killed by tigers. Among the items taken from his collection when the city fell in 1799 was a mechanical organ shaped like a tiger standing on top of a redcoat, his teeth in the soldier’s throat. When one winds the handle, the soldier lifts an arm and calls for help, and the tiger roars.

One of the signs of a new incarnation of a Dalai Lama is striped marks on the legs—“as of a tiger.”

Even in the Middle Ages, tigresses were known for their devotion to their young. Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote that a hunter could steal cubs with the aid of spherical mirrors, which he threw in front of the pursuing mother: “And the mother followeth and findeth the mirrors in the way, and looketh on them and seeth her own shadow and image therein, and weeneth that she seeth her children therein, and is long occupied therefore to deliver her children out of the glass, and so the hunter hath time and space for to scape.”

In parts of Sumatra, the tiger is called inya or nenek, a word that also means “grandmother.” “Ssh, grandmother’s here” is both a warning and a phrase of respect. Villages are thought to have their “own” tiger, which protects the community, upholds the law of the forest, and preys only on transgressors—adulterers, for instance—or people who have a bad aura or tainted blood. Residents describe their village tiger as sopan, “polite.” But they live in fear of the ones they call harimau luar, the tiger from outside. 

It was also in Sumatra that early ethnographers heard reports of were-tigers. There was supposed to be an entire village of them in the Mt. Dempo region. You could recognize them because they had no groove in their upper lip. Not long ago, Ruth Padel heard of one who was married to a schoolteacher. Her informant told her: “He turns into a tiger when stressed. He eats like an animal. They are afraid of him. His eyes stare like a tiger.” 

The kings of Java enjoyed watching rampogs, tiger-stickings, in which captive animals were driven onto an open field to be set upon by men with spears. Before the spectacle began, the animals were kept in wooden cages, which were set on fire to force them into the open. According to some sources, the entertainments claimed the lives of as many as 200 tigers a day.

The Javan tiger became extinct in the 1970s.

Why did I feel cheated when Richard Parker was revealed to be artificial? Any movie character is artificial—so is any character in a book—and it makes no more sense to believe in a tiger named Richard Parker than it does to believe in a human being named Rick Blaine or Annie Hall. And outside the 127-minute dream of the film, no one had pretended that Richard Parker was real. On the contrary: All the publicity heralded the marvel of his fabrication. 

Some of my indignation stemmed from the awe I’d felt watching those trailers; the two feelings were almost identical in intensity, and this suggests that they were the same feeling turned inside out. Maybe feelings, like matter and energy, are subject to a law of conservation. They don’t disappear, but morph into other feelings, which wane in intensity only as the organism wanes in strength. I’ve described my awe as childlike; my indignation was childlike, too. But what did I have to get indignant about, except at having been charmed back into a child’s credulity—a tiger and a boy! On a boat!—only to be told that the thing I believed in wasn’t real? Recall the injustice of childhood, when grownups make you tremble with dread for lying to them only to lie to you and chuckle when you catch them at it. Yet at the same time my outrage was also an adult’s outrage on behalf of a child, even if that child was the grownup himself, or some dormant part of him that had been reawakened by the roar of a thirty-foot tiger, enhanced by Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound. Improbably, paradoxically, the same roar had lulled the grownup to sleep. When he started awake, he saw the child gaping at digital tricks, his eyes shining with wonder. In another minute Ang Lee would come along and steal his pocket money.


On a June visit to the National Zoo in Washington, I was taken to see a male Sumatran tiger named Kavi. Like most Sumatrans, he was on the small side, probably under 300 pounds. His coat was a color between cumin and turmeric, with not much white in it apart from the facial ruff. On this afternoon, he was inside his cage rather than in the big-cat habitat outside, where I would later see a female named Damai, who in former times, before zoos began taking pains not to anthropomorphize their animals, would’ve been called Kavi’s mate. Mates or not, the two tigers were kept separate most of the time, in keeping with their normal behavior in the wild.

The enclosure was some ten feet by eight feet. A remotely operated sliding door connected it to the narrow hallway through which Kavi would pass on his way outdoors. A smaller mesh “howdy gate” led to Damai’s enclosure. Considering the possible consequences of introducing two large carnivores in an enclosed space, such gates have become a standard way of acclimating new tigers to each other for breeding purposes. At his first sight of the female, Kavi had been so excited that he bounced back and forth in front of the gate. The more reserved Damai watched him, chuffing and rubbing her head against the grate. When they were finally brought together, he at first ignored her, then suddenly seemed to realize why they’d been thrown together and tried mounting her, so alarming Damai that she clawed him. Subsequent encounters had been more successful, and she was now pregnant. A few months after my visit, she’d give birth to two healthy cubs.

Kavi reclined on a shelf bolted to a wall about three feet above the enclosure’s cement floor. On a nearby tray were the leftovers of the eight pounds of ground meat he is fed each day. (In the wild, he might eat four times as much, but only once a week, after repeated unsuccessful hunts.) There was a lot of meat left, and Kavi’s keeper, a tall, regal woman named Dell Guglielmo, thought he didn’t like the mix. To keep track of each animal’s consumption, she and her coworkers sprinkle the feed with different colors of edible glitter, which shows up in the scat. The big cats are also fed frozen rabbits and a mixture of whole mice, mouse blood, and chicken broth frozen in a mold. “We call them mouse-sicles,” Guglielmo said.

John Seidensticker, a big-cat specialist and research scientist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, once told me that captive tigers have brains that are up to 10 percent smaller than those of their counterparts in the wild, and much less muscle mass. Some of this is probably a result of zoo-bred animals’ lack of opportunities for purposeful activity, namely hunting and killing. The keepers try to give them toys, but finding a toy sturdy enough for a tiger takes work. A brewery in Virginia had sent over some kegs. And in the narrow corridor, I passed a few large balls, three or four feet in diameter, made of hard plastic. They were notched with claw marks, and a few had had huge chunks bitten out of them. Some cats demolish them in minutes.

The cat house was clean but smelled strongly of urine. A tiger’s has the familiar acridity of all cat piss, just amplified. And it has a puzzling under-note of fish—puzzling because the tigers at the National Zoo aren’t fed fish. The male cats spray, and from inside their enclosures they can easily hit a wall ten feet away. Two cages down, a lion named Luke roared; the building seemed to shake. Kavi looked unperturbed. But when I stepped out from behind Guglielmo, whom I’d followed down the hallway, he stiffened and his ears rose. She warned me that Kavi didn’t like men. In another moment he might snarl. The prospect excited me, but I was also a little scared. I made an attempt at chuffing and was surprised and pleased to hear the tiger chuff back. His ears lowered. For the next several minutes I stood in the hall, silently watching him while he silently watched me. I blinked at him, though I was conscious of what a stupid presumption I was making, greeting a tiger the way I would an unfamiliar housecat. The tiger blinked at me. I could have spent the afternoon that way. In the pictures I took of Kavi, his forepaws are crossed. The gesture, together with his slitted eyes, conveys the confidence and relaxation of a celebrity who’s being interviewed by a starstruck reporter. He knows the piece will be a big wet kiss.

The outdoor compound where the tigers spend most of the day (sharing the space with the zoo’s lions) was 31,000 square feet, just a fraction of the size of a single animal’s territory in the wild. But it was planted with scarlet and red oak, Himalayan pine, and bamboo thickets where the animals could lie up during the day, and had terraces that gave them opportunities to jump and climb. It was certainly more spacious than their indoor quarters. The big cats used to spend the night outside. It must have been satisfying for them, especially on those nights a stray bird or rodent found its way into the enclosure. (The zoo’s staff still talks about a tigress named Soyono that killed some ducks that had made the mistake of landing in her territory; she ate only the breast meat.) However, in 1995, Margaret Davis King, a homeless, mentally ill woman from Arkansas, climbed over a three-and-a-half-foot barrier, crossed a four-foot-wide dirt buffer, dropped down a nine-foot wall, and then swam a twenty-six-foot moat and entered an enclosure shared by a pair of lions. A keeper found her mutilated remains the next morning. The medical examiner told reporters, “This was certainly a death that occurred over several minutes.” King believed she was related to Jesus and received messages from God. Investigators thought she might have been emulating the early Christian martyrs, or maybe the prophet Daniel, who was cast into a lions’ den and emerged unharmed. Since that time, the National Zoo’s lions and tigers have been brought inside at nightfall.

Seidensticker believes that every zoo embodies one of four models of animal management, or some combination of them. The models in turn reflect underlying ideas of what a zoo is for—whether it’s meant for human visitors or for the animals that live in it and whether those animals are supposed to be micromanaged and pampered or allowed to live as much as possible as they would in their native habitat. Always, some allowances have to be made for the sensibilities of the clientele. In the wild, the turnover of males in a pride of lions is pretty gruesome; if replicated in a zoo, the zoo would have to hire a trauma counselor for child visitors, and maybe for a few grownup ones, too.


Following the second commandment (or, for Catholics and Lutherans, the first), all the Abrahamic religions prohibit idolatry. This is one of those familiar terms—like “sin”—whose meaning we think we know but that on inspection turns out to be more nebulous. In certain times and places and according to certain interpreters, idolatry has meant not only worshipping graven images but creating such images in the first place, on grounds that creation is solely the prerogative of God (in the Quran, one of the epithets for God is musawwir—maker of forms) and any work of art usurps it. In the most extreme cases, all representations have been forbidden. More often the restrictions are narrower and full of loopholes. Because Allah was said to be the creator of everything that could speak or breathe, some Middle Eastern painters fudged the issue by giving their human figures a flower in place of a head. Jewish religious texts of the Middle Ages gave them birds’ heads, all those beaky Jews, wearing the pointed Jews’ hats mandated by German margraves, toiling, praying, feasting, dispensing alms, piecing together lives as fragile as swallows’ nests, as if they really were human.

What distinguishes the idolatrous image from the innocuous one? Judging from the examples above, it has to do with how closely the image approximates reality (“any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”). In reality, human beings have human heads with mouths that speak and breathe, but representing them in this manner may be an affront to God. Was there an outcry within the Catholic Church when Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci began representing the human form realistically, giving it perspective, anatomically correct musculature, and a face as mobile and seamed as the faces one saw in the marketplace, haggling over the price of fish? Did some pope of the nineteenth century issue an encyclical against photography? Did imams pronounce a fatwa against the cinema? Seeing a locomotive thundering at them through a haze of steam, early movie audiences yelled and dove for cover. But in time all of these illusions were recognized as illusions, realistic but not reality itself. Reality remained elsewhere. Maybe it still belonged to god, if you believed in one. Maybe the dividing line between the idolatrous image and its permissible counterpart is that the one is a counterfeit of the real and the other only a gesture toward it. God may be the uncontested author of the real, but that leaves us the imaginary, where a human being may have a body, limbs, and a rose for a head.

Early special effects clearly belong to the realm of the imaginary. Astronomers travel to the moon in a papier-mâché shell fired from a giant cannon. A model gorilla made from aluminum, foam, and latex and covered in rabbit fur squats on top of a model Empire State Building with a model airplane clutched in its fist. A squad of sword-wielding skeletons pops out of the ground with the spikiness of stop-motion photography; you can almost hear their joints clacking. This is how skeletons ought to move—it’s how they move in dreams—but even at nine or ten, I didn’t think the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts were real: I thought they were cool. So did millions of other children in the early sixties, and grownups, too. We understood Ray Harryhausen’s special effects the same way moviegoers in 1902 probably understood those of Georges Méliès: not as illusions but as spectacles, thrilling even in their crudeness. Was our pleasure a mark of ingenuousness or sophistication? We may have tacitly understood that we were seeing representations of things that did not exist—or of things that no one had seen and lived to tell about.

In the West, the fine arts moved toward the real and then turned away, muttering that the real had been done. Every so often someone renegotiated reality with the aid of an airbrush or a large-format camera, or put a real shark in a tank filled with formaldehyde. But anybody could see that the shark was dead. Special effects kept advancing single-mindedly, driven by advances in technology and the appetites, stated and inferred, of the movie audience. It became possible to show men being hewn down by the thousands on a single morning of World War II, too many to count and at the same time individual in their agony, down to the GI groping dully in the sand for his severed arm. The spacecraft were no longer papier mâché, or no longer looked like it. One could see the bloom of condensation on their bulkheads. Instead of Selenites in leotards, there was an alien whose massive, wormlike head, fashioned from snake vertebrae and tubes scavenged from an old Rolls-Royce, had 900 articulated parts. You could see what it, or its larval precursor, looked like erupting out of a human chest. You could see ghosts and angels and the world being destroyed. Computer graphics further narrowed the gap between representation and reality and between the real and the imaginary. In the fight scenes in The Matrix (I forget which one), you can’t tell the real Agent Smith from his digitally generated clones. Anybody can intuitively grasp the technology of the old effects; it’s basically chemistry and mechanics. But who can intuitively understand the processes that transubstantiate ones and zeroes into a tiger? “The animator will grab a control,” Westenhofer says of his creation, which had as many discrete controllers for its paws as earlier animated creatures had for their entire facial rigs. “But ultimately we’re just looking at the tiger’s surface.” Or, in the words of that animator at Dreamworks: “Actually, it’s just numbers.”

The Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “the Uncanny Valley” to describe what happens when replications of the human form, and especially the human face, attain a certain degree of realism. Robots that are 20 percent humanlike make human viewers feel warm and fuzzy, and they feel warmer and fuzzier as robots become more lifelike, up to, say, 90 percent. But somewhere beyond 95 percent the opposite happens. As Lawrence Weschler puts it in his brilliant Uncanny Valley, “When a replicant’s almost completely human, the slightest variance, the 1 percent that’s not quite right, suddenly looms up enormously, rendering the entire effect somehow creepy and monstrously alien (no longer, that is, an incredibly lifelike machine but rather a human being with something inexplicably wrong.).” 

The same thing occurs in animation. Viewers who saw the 2004 movie of the children’s classic The Polar Express, the first animated film to use motion-capture technology,complained that its human figures were at once too convincing and not convincing enough. One reviewer called it a “zombie train.” 

When I asked if he could tell the difference between the real and digital tigers in Life of Pi, Seidensticker replied, “There was some very good stuff that I could not tell. Especially the fast moving material.” But at other times, he noted a discrepancy. “There is nothing as smooth as a moving tiger.” 

One of the reasons Westenhofer’s tiger is so convincing is that it’s a likeness of a specific animal: King. He and the other real tigers—his sister Minh, another female named Themis, and Jonas, the male from Canada—weren’t just stand-ins but models that the animation team would refer to as they composed Richard Parker. Westenhofer told me, “I had a conversation with Ang early on to see if we’d bring any tigers on the shoot, and we both agreed it was important. It was a way of holding my own feet to the fire. Of setting the bar high.” It was with that in mind that the big cats were flown from France to the set in Taiwan and kept there for the duration of filming, in specially designed cages near the 1.7-million-gallon water tank where the ocean scenes were shot. One imagines agitated tigers caged in the hold of a cargo plane, trying to make sense of sensations that have no preexisting niche in the tiger sensorium. But Thierry Le Portier says they were calm. When I asked him if they’d been tranquilized for the thirteen-hour flight, his hauteur was unmistakable even in an e-mail: “I do not need to drug my animals to travel.”

The plane landed. The hot smell gave way to other smells that were more or less familiar, smells of water and growing things and creatures with blood moving through them. The tigers were released from their containers and placed in larger ones where they could pace and roll on their backs and even take small leaps. To get them used to the camera, they were wrangled onto lifeboats—not the wooden ones where Sharma did his scenes, but boats made of steel—and put through their paces in front of mock-ups; fake cameras were mounted on cranes and had pieces of cellophane where the lenses would be so the big cats could see their reflections. The only human who accompanied them was Le Portier. When Pi trains Richard Parker with chunks of meat and taps of a stick, it’s an offscreen Le Portier who’s wielding the stick. The tigers’ boats, like the actor’s, were mounted on gimbals to simulate the rocking of a craft in the middle of the ocean. There are no reports of the animals getting sick.

At a certain point, the dummy cameras were replaced by real ones, and Eric de Boer began filming: “I shot lots of close-ups of the nose for breathing patterns,” he told the writer Jean-Christophe Castelli. “Yawning and snarling and hissing and eating, drinking, grooming, marking. Sleeping, pissing. How does a paw change shape when it takes the weight? And how does it change shape when the weight rolls over it for a step? How do the nails protract and retract?” Artists from da Vinci to Rembrandt have viewed the human hand as a signifier of the whole being. De Boer seems to have felt this way about tigers’ paws: “The way the nails protracted and darker fur would come out with those nails—the pink of the nail. Now when we collide with the ground we can see the shape change, the anger and aggression.” He and the other filmmakers were assembling a visual encyclopedia of tiger behavior, though it was more accurately an encyclopedia of the behavior of captive tigers. There were no shots of tigers mating or fighting over territory, no shots of them stalking and killing their prey, no shots of them feeding on dead things whose blood was still steaming. Typically, tigers begin with the hindquarters. 

It became a point of pride for Westenhofer to make sure that every shot of Richard Parker was based on a reference clip of one of the animals on set or documentary footage. Lee agreed. To understand how a tiger might behave in different situations, the animators consulted Le Portier. “Thierry has been with tigers so long that he understands their personalities,” Westenhofer says. “So what would a tiger do if he came out onto a raft? One of the things I thought was most interesting is that when a tiger’s scared, he tries to act as nonchalant as possible. He won’t look at you, he’ll look at his paws. To someone who knows, he’s showing he’s nervous by acting like he’s not nervous.”

Throughout, they had to guard against the temptation to make the tiger look—and act—more human. Of course, from the time of the first cartoons, animals have been portrayed as if they were. In his earliest incarnation, Mickey Mouse looked like something you’d swat with a broom, but over time his head and eyes got bigger and rounder, his muzzle shortened, until he was basically a hairy kid with a squeaky voice and a tail. Even CG animals were subject to this convention. When Westenhofer created a digital Aslan for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the majestic authenticity of his animation was undercut by the necessity of giving the lion a mouth that was capable of speaking—in Liam Neeson’s voice, no less. For Pi, however, he made it a rule not to anthropomorphize. “Here was a tiger that was going to be a tiger,” he told me. In an early version of the scene in which the characters come ashore on a deserted beach, Richard Parker was shown pausing as he slinked off into the trees, and turning to look back at Pi. Everybody agreed the look would drive home the meaning of the shot. But Westenhofer knew a real tiger wouldn’t do that. In the final take, the creature walks on without stopping.

The one exception to the rule came on a suggestion from the trainer. When Pi and Richard Parker are nearly dead from starvation and the despairing boy holds the big cat’s head, the animal looks at him briefly, in a way that may not be grateful but seems at the very least speculative, as if he were trying to understand the new terms of their relationship. Maybe for the first time Richard Parker grasps that they have a relationship. This would be a radical understanding for an animal that in its natural state spends most of its life alone. But as Westenhofer explains, the moment was grounded in Le Portier’s own experience. As a trainer with more than thirty years of experience, working with animals whose life span is only sixteen years, Le Portier has seen a number of his companions pass away. “His tigers are really aggressive, they’re not bottle-fed guys,” Westenhofer told one interviewer. “This tiger was dying of cancer, and it was right near her passing away, and it was the first time she nuzzled him and created contact, looking up and regarding him. That’s what we tried to portray in that shot.”


Wild tigers,” writes John Seidensticker, “are being annihilated.” There may be as few as 3,200 adults left in the wild—half as many as in 2000. Of these, roughly 2,000 are thought to be Bengals, living in India and adjoining nations; 400 Sumatrans remain in Indonesia. There may be 500 tigers in Malaysia; another 300 in Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia combined. Only 400 Amur tigers still remain in the vastness of the Russian Far East and northeast China. This diminished population inhabits only 7 percent of its former geographical range.

Tigers were first declared endangered in 1969. Between that time and the present, their numbers have dwindled further and the human population living within their range has increased by 40 percent, to more than 3.4 billion. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the principal threat to wild tigers is human beings. There may be other animals that prey on them (though not many), but certainly no other species has been known to organize the ceremonial baiting and execution of captive tigers, or to make a practice of killing them wholesale for sport.

The destruction of tigers isn’t always, or even primarily, deliberate. As populations grow, villagers in India or Indonesia or Nepal clear more land for farming; they venture deeper into the surrounding forests for wood for cooking and building, and they cut more of it. Maybe commercial logging operations start taking wood as well. Maybe the villages grow into towns. As the forest melts away, the animals that lived there die out or disperse, the tigers that fed on them turn to prey of convenience—goats and cattle and dogs and occasionally people (man-eating is rare and usually attributed to animals that are too weak or debilitated to take other game)—and the people kill them, as people kill any common menace. Development accelerates the process. Three videos, taken days apart by a camera trap in the Bukit Betabuh protected forest in Sumatra, show a tiger coming so close to the lens that its whiskers and facial ruff blur; then a bulldozer plowing a dirt road through the underbrush; and finally, a tiger, maybe the same one, passing by but quickly stepping out of range, having found nothing worth staying for. 

What makes the animal’s status especially dire is the fact that its remaining populations are scattered, in what biologists call Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCL)—areas that have sufficient habitat, resources, and prey to sustain five or more animals and where tigers have been known to occur in the past ten years. There are seventy-six such zones across Asia; some can support as many as 500 tigers. But most of the known TCLs are smaller, often too small to be ecologically viable, and their isolation makes it difficult for tigers to migrate from one to another, which is necessary to prevent inbreeding and relieve the pressure of too many males competing for game and females, the circumstance in which they’re most likely to kill cubs. When young males disperse from these safe islands, they have to pass through country where they risk being shot or poisoned by poachers or struck by motor vehicles as they cross a road.

These days, Seidensticker devotes most of his efforts to creating and preserving safe havens for tigers in the wild, notably in the Terai region of Nepal. He’s part of an international campaign to double the number of wild tigers by 2020. Still, his perspective is often bleak: “We have witnessed the unfolding catastrophe of a magnificent predator’s steady slide to extinction.” Beyond poaching and the unceasing human claim on their habitats, the problem, he writes, is that “there is insufficient demand for the survival of wild tigers living in natural landscapes.”

I once asked Seidensticker, “If you were going to design a perfect environment for a tiger that would still enable visitors to see it, money no object, what would it look like?”

He wrote back: “I don’t think you can build a ‘perfect’ captive environment.”

In the twenty-first century, extinction means something different than it once did. There are now more tigers in captivity than in the wild, more than 5,000 in the US alone. Of these, only an estimated 500 are in zoos or certified preserves. The others are penned in yards or confined in coops only a little bigger than dog houses, sometimes inside people’s homes. They are often malnourished and abused or, as in Asia, sold for their pelts and organs.

In 2012, Terry Thompson, a collector of exotic animals in Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages of his private menagerie before shooting himself through the roof of the mouth. To the horror of many observers, police killed fifty wild animals, including eighteen Bengal tigers. 

In Brazil, there’s a family that lives with seven tigers, most of them apparently full-grown. Photos show the family feeding one by hand at the dining table; the smiling patriarch pushing back another’s lips to display his canines; a bikinied daughter lying on top of a tiger swimming in the pool and toweling him dry afterward.

One of my students once showed me a picture she’d taken of a friend at an animal park in Thailand during a scholastic year abroad, a pretty, twenty-something young woman lying with her head resting on the flank of a prone tiger, as unconcerned as if he were a plush toy with a pink felt scrap for a tongue. What could be worse than for a wild creature to have its nature suppressed in such a manner? Still, it’s hard for me to admit that in a portion of my heart I was envious. What could be more wonderful than to lie down with a tiger in complete safety, unless maybe to have one as a pet?

Years ago, at a county fair, I posed for a photograph holding a liger cub, the offspring of a tiger and a lion that had probably been mated by a private collector. My wife and I had to drape a padded blanket over our laps, I guess to keep the little creature from clawing or peeing on us, though it was perfectly docile. It had probably been drugged.

Still, I think of that photo, taken inside a carnival tent on a clammy afternoon in August when both of us were grumpy and depressed, and costing us ten dollars, as a keepsake of one of the happiest moments of my life.

Thierry Le Portier says that the only wild animals he fears are the ones that were raised as exotic pets. To him, they always look dead behind the eyes, and their aggressive instincts, he believes, will always resurface. 

Bill Westenhofer told Cristy Lytal that the best thing about “making a digital tiger is that you get to spend eight weeks with real tigers. It’s the most arresting animal you’ve ever seen. Everything about the way they look, their eyes, the concentric rings. When they look at you, it freezes you in your tracks.”

There’s a syntactical doubleness here: A tiger’s look freezes you, the way it might freeze prey, but looking at a tiger has the same effect; it’s the most arresting animal you’ve ever seen. A tiger is a spectacle, something that, by virtue of its beauty and ferocity, demands to be looked at, even as it resists being known. This is why they’ve been shown in zoos and circuses for hundreds of years. It’s probably why they’ve been killed in such numbers, so that hunters can pose for photos beside their carcasses and drape their skins on the living-room floor. At the same time, I think their value as spectacles is a large part of what keeps tigers alive. This is why conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund so often use pictures of them in their fundraising. In a world saturated with images, something can be a spectacle even if you never get to see it. You need only know it’s out there—not in a cage, but in the forest, crouching in the high grass, slinking in the shadows beneath the sal trees.

But what if that spectacle can be reproduced with a realism that captures the 10 million individual hairs of a tiger’s pelt, the pores in a tiger’s nose, with some lines of code and clicks of a mouse, and does it so perfectly that you can’t tell the difference? What if our children’s children grow up believing that virtual tigers are the only tigers there are and in the rare event they ever see a real one are disappointed because its eyes are too bright, its gait too silken?

When I finally went to see Life of Pi, what struck me was not just the digital tiger’s idolatrous authenticity, but its poetry. This was particularly evident when it first glowers up at Pi from the bottom of the lifeboat and again when it plunges into the ocean and triumphantly swims; there was another kind of poetry in its bottom-heavy clumsiness as Pi helps it back into the craft. Without that help, the predator might remain in the water, paddling with weakening strokes until it drowned. More than any other moment in the film, this one conveys the idea of symbiosis, the interdependence of two life forms that are ordinarily inimical. Of course, what Lee shows us surging through the swells is a real tiger. And the digital Richard Parker’s first appearance on the boat essentially duplicates footage of the real thing: When King was filmed springing from beneath the tarp on the boat, Westenhofer recalls, he never just sprang. In take after take, he ripped the tarp to shreds. 

People have been debating for decades whether animation is a craft or an art. In the person of Richard Parker—I use “person” consciously—Westenhofer and his crew achieved art. This isn’t just because of their creature’s fidelity to actual tigers; it’s because of the hundreds of hours they devoted to observing tigers in the first place, watching them yawning and snarling and hissing and eating, drinking, grooming, marking, sleeping, pissing. Asking how a paw changes shape when it takes the weight of their stride. Close observation is something we ascribe to scientists, especially naturalists, but it’s also required of artists, even artists whose work distorts the real or scorches it with the heat of their feeling. Rilke said of Rodin, his friend and instructor: “Since he had been granted the gift of seeing things in everything, he had also acquired the ability to construct things and therein lies the greatness of his art.” 

It was Rodin who told the young poet to go to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and study one of its animals, acquainting himself with its movements and moods until he knew everything about it that could be known. This was how he wrote “The Panther.” The poem begins:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world



This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading