Where are the wild Tigers? The danger of our obliviousness to incrementalism.

January 31, 2008 | By | 16 Replies More

In the February 2008 edition of Natural History Magazine (article not available online), you can learn where tigers still live in the wild.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers living in the wild.  Today, there are only 5000 in the wild. tiger2 Tigers now inhabit only 7% of their original territory, which has shrunk by 41% in the past 10 years.  Those relatively few tigers that remain in the wild hunt wild cattle, deer and pigs in isolated pockets of forested land in India, Sumatra, Eastern Russia in southern China.  Tigers are hunted illegally for pelts and for tiger parts that are used in medicines (such as tiger penis soups).

But did you know how many tigers live in United States?  7,000 to 15,000 tigers live

in private roadside zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, farms and backyards in the US.  Owners are often deluded into thinking that they contain the creatures, treating them like house cats, perhaps attracted by the challenge.  Yet even house cats, which

have been domesticated for thousands of years will reach out and swat their human companions.  What happens when a six month old sixty-pound beast with claws and slicing incisors takes a swipe?

Are these privately owned tigers allowed to run in large open areas and kept in good health?  Not likely.  Many tigers are kept in cages much too small for them and they are “fed insufficient or inappropriate food, such as canned dog food.”

tiger-lo res.jpg

The Natural History article indicates that tigers are illegal to import, but they reproduce easily in captivity.  Therefore, it is easy to make more tigers, even though many of them are inbred. Although federal law bans the interstate shipment of endangered species for the pet trade, there are many loopholes in the law.  State laws are inconsistent, and some of them don’t even require exotic animals to be registered.

Tigers are surprisingly cheap too.  “The price tag of a tiger cub-between $300 and $900-is comparable to that of a poodle puppy registered with the American kennel club.”  Tigers are sometimes given away (when the owner realizes the enormous difficulty of keeping a tiger).  The article notes a one newsletter ad posted by a seller in Texas: “Free-two male tigers and a half years old, likes women; one female tiger, six years old, likes men and women; cages with cats.”

Imagine if we had taken a snapshot of the tiger population 100 years ago and we could easily compare it to the tiger population now.  I suppose that is what I am doing with this post.  Imagine the headline:  Tens of thousands of wild tigers no longer exist! Thousands of abused tigers living desperate lonely lives trapped in tiny cages across America!If we saw that headline dramatically comparing the tiger populations of two arrows 100 years apart, would we do something about the situation?  Maybe and maybe not, but it’s much more likely that we would do something if we could more easily see the situation changing.  When change is incremental and therefore not easily noticeable, it is much less likely that we will do anything about a deteriorating situation.  This human difficulty of tracking slow change presents a great danger to human populations.

Incrementalism makes critically important changes invisible, unless we are in unusually patient sort of person who takes the time to carefully track the slow changes of things that don’t seem to need tracking.

I have a close friend who was in a highly strained marriage. He happened to keep a journal over the years. His wife was an alcoholic.  His wife did not become an alcoholic overnight.  He did not notice this disturbing change in her during any particular week or month.  One day, he forced himself to sit down and read ten years of his journal entries at one time.  This allowed him to see, finally, the slow and consistent deterioration of that relationship (and the fact that things were not getting any better for the past few years).  This tracking of events through journal entries allowed him to dramatically see the deterioration of the relationship.  He filed for divorce after coming to this realization, even though he had been there every day throughout this changing situation, not fully appreciating the decline.

Here’s another example.  How did it happen that the United States has a critical shortage of water in many locations? For instance, my youngest sister lives in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina, where the metropolitan area typically has only a 50-day supply of water available. Atlanta has a similar problem.  Along the same lines, check out this shocking image of Lake Mead. Put your cursor over the top picture to see the difference in the water level in only three years.  Did these changes happen overnight?  Absolutely not.  Numerous decisions have been made over the years to over-allocate the water supply.  Another incredibly distressing example is the lack of fish in the North Atlantic Ocean, formerly an abundant source of food for millions of people.

Humans are simply not easily able to track subtle changes over long periods of time without conscious effort and rigorous analysis.  This means that the numerous highly distractible humans up today are flying blind with regard to some of the most important changes around them.  Carefully watching and listening to one’s local surroundings is no protection from long-term dangers.  Here’s a corollary: merely making short-term decisions to satisfy one’s immediate needs will not necessarily bring about a benevolent invisible hand.  The benevolent invisible hand has an evil brother who that squeezes people unmercifully, and often destroys them.  Thus my impatience with the many Pollyannas out there who think we can merely live our happy-go-lucky local existences and everything long-term will simply take care of itself.  Have they taken the time to track all of the long-term changes brought about by our short-term decisions?  If they had, they would be distressed at many of the of the long-term changes wrought by their alleged good buddy, the invisible hand.

To what other critically important long-term changes are we oblivious?  They are too numerous to list.  Here’s one to consider.  Perhaps the most important change to occur in America during the 21st century was the mass migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North.  It happened gradually over many years, so it did not make any headlines like the wars, the misdeeds of celebrities and the periodic natural disasters.  As far as impacting American history, however, this human migration cannot be underrated.

If only human beings had a constant craving to take the time and effort to sift through longitudinal data and to do the necessary analysis to conduct A/B comparisons.  If we did, we would see how dramatically life is changing over the decades and we would better appreciate what we are doing to ourselves and what we are doing to our planet.

Here’s another dramatic example.  Think about the implications for the gradual increase in obesity among Americans.  If you haven’t noticed people getting fatter, it’s because it’s been so gradual over the past couple of decades.  Take a look at these maps, however, and you’ll see that the change is as dramatic as it is dangerous to the health of Americans.

Those of us who have been around for a few decades as adults know that political campaigning has changed dramatically.  Young adults might not appreciate that Swift Boating is a nefarious art that has developed over the years.  It’s not that political candidates have not lied about each other in the past, but they have never done so with the boldness and calculation evident in today’s campaigns (even the Clintons are getting into it).  In fact, this relatively new ruthless method of fabricating and then attacking character is all the more reason that many otherwise qualified people would never consider running for office.

What else has been happening gradually, so gradually that it takes number-crunching to notice it?  How about the substantial increase in the number of female college students and the significant decline in the number of male college students? If that change occurred in one year, it would make huge headlines, but that is not the case.  What are the consequences for this changing demographic?  If we don’t notice the change, we won’t be able to ask the right questions. If we don’t ask the right questions, we won’t address the underlying problems.

There was no national headlines that the United States would begin implementing a policy to torture its prisoners over the past five years.  If there had been such a headline, there would have been a huge uproar (or is this wishful thinking?).  As it is, the revelations were sporadic (although sometimes dramatic) and smothered with official denials over many months.  Nonetheless, it is now clear that the Bush administration believes strongly in torture and that many Americans have become complacent about the use of torture, despite overwhelming evidence that we should be feeling great shame as a nation.

Not all gradual changes are bad, however.  Over the past 25 years, the computer has become a standard appliance in most households and businesses.  It has become a key method of providing and receiving information.  This dramatic increase in the use of computers has been a gradual change that has received very few headlines, despite the huge impact played in our lives by the use of computers and the Internet.  In an earlier post, I commented on how different the practice of law was when I started as a lawyer “only” 25 years ago.

What is acceptable as moral behavior often changes gradually and imperceptibly.  Imagine the outrage that would result if one broadcasted some of today’s television shows one or two generations ago!  The violence and the sexual references would probably have had numerous people marching in the streets.  Speaking of sex, I do realize how I myself have changed with regard to my attitude toward gays. When I moved into my urban neighborhood 20 years ago, I knew very few gay people and I didn’t know any of them well.  In fact, I remember feeling a bit awkward around two gay neighbors when I first moved in.  Fast forward 20 years.  Today, I rarely think it to be a significant fact that someone is gay or not.  What brought about the change were the numerous occasions where I talked with, shared meals with and worked with people who happened to be gay (as opposed to “gay people”).  Somewhere, the fact that someone was gay became very small my radar.  I didn’t realize I was changing in this regard over the decades, but I do now, given my focus on the issue.

When things change slowly, we don’t notice them changing and we forget that things used to be different than they now are.  The resulting obliviousness to slow change sets the stage for a faux sense of logic and therefore justification.  Many people feel that something is justified simply because “it has always been done that way.”   In fact, this principle of doing things the way they’ve always been done has been elevated into the strange legal principle of stare decisis.  It is a strange principle and that it is an amoral principal at heart, as I’ve argued before. Why should something be justified simply because it’s been done that way before?  It is a principle that can justify anything, it even dangerous changes that have occurred over a decade or two, a gradual enough change that people haven’t really noticed the change.

Humans are creatures of limited attention and we need to remind ourselves of this vulnerability repeatedly.  If we don’t remind ourselves of this susceptibility, we are at risk for drifting and deteriorating in ways which we would never tolerate had we been more capable of noticing such slow trends.  Things that come to my mind are the virulent forms of religious and political fundamentalism that are widely tolerated in America.

If we don’t stay vigilant, the things that we value about our lives can and will deteriorate.  Unless we take more care than we currently are taking, the things that we value are at risk of going the way of the tiger.

[Note on the photos:  I photographed these tigers at the St. Louis Zoo, which is a terrific place to view well-treated animals].


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Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Kevin Morgan says:

    It's a tragedy and a crime the way these wild animals are allowed to be treated. My wife and I were on vacation in Virginia about 14 years ago. While leaving the Natural Bridge we came upon a roadside zoo. They had a caged tiger that looked emaciated. The poor animal was just pacing back and forth in its cage. It broke our hearts.

  2. Ben says:

    I saw on tv (gasp) where the indigenous populations are resorting to poaching for *food*. For meat, they are starving, and they sneak inside the wildlife refuges in order to feed their starving families. It is an untenable situation for the animals and the people. (maybe untenable isn't quite the right word, the situation is definitely bad)

  3. Vicki Baker says:

    This is an important topic. The best literary representation of this theme has to be Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, a fictional account of the foundering of the medieval European colony on Greenland.

    Given the vast template of History, it is impressive how Ms. Smiley is able to telescope certain incidents, unravel personalities in a few paragraphs, delve into a kind of folkloric metaphysics – she is a diverse and masterly writer. Each long chapter, ”Riches,” ”The Devil,” ”Love,” has its expansive theme, just as the theme of the Great Extinction runs through the entire novel. But the cadences of day-to-day village life, the larger social dynamics as well as the domestic particulars, comprise the true riches of ”The Greenlanders.” Despite the story being set far back in time, it has a certain urgency. Again, in her writing about writing the novel, the author says, ”The experience of these medieval people must speak to us in some fluid and haunting way, for they were our precursors, a branch of our family that lived fully, and indeed richly, even while they moved – as our own civilization may be moving – toward apocalypse.”


  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Here are some dramatic demos of our obliviousness to gradual changes. http://www.perceptionweb.com/misc.cgi?id=p3104 Also, search at this site for "change blindness" for related examples.

  5. Erika Price says:

    I know this point is off-topic from the true message of the post, but I have seen personally some of the abuse against the captive tigers in America. I once had a neighbor who kept a large farm, and a barn filled with exotic animals. There was a white tiger, and the grizzly bear that played Baloo in the live action version of The Jungle Book (at least, so the owner claimed). Every year he would take these animals to the county fair, strap them with leather and chains to plywood tables, and charge $10 for children to hop up next to the poor creature and get a photo.

    In addition, it seems that most of these "majestic" white tigers we see in the U.S. come from less than impressive roots. See the second half of the article at the website we make money not art for some info on the poor breeding techniques used to create white tigers.

    But back on point. We probably fail to see incremental change because we have such an adept ability to adjust. For instance, we may not notice that a friend has gained weight if we see them on a daily basis. If we see that person once a year, though, the change will look very sudden and obvious. To correct for this, it doesn't seem like we can do much. We can only try to take an evaluative look from the long view once and a while- like your friend in the troubled marriage- to gain perspective.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    The Indian government plans to spend more than $13 million establishing a special ranger force to protect the country's endangered tigers, following pressure from international conservationists to save the wild cats.


  7. eirik says:

    its so sad to hear what is happening to all thes tigers in the us

    excellent post, Erich!

  8. linda says:

    wow that is sad. i hate to see animals in distress and it breaks my heart.

  9. mike says:


  10. Erich Vieth says:

    "Almost all of America’s 7,000 tigers are born and raised here. Reports from tiger farms suggest there are many unscrupulous breeders, and activists allege that the trade is cruel. What’s clear is that tigers are often kept in small pens, people die when safety is lax, and the cats are hideously inbred to produce valuable white cubs."


  11. namit sharma says:

    here in india there is a great need to save the bio diversity….

    just posting something on the walls of some XYZ website will not work….

    i am from hyderabad(INDIA, ANDHRA PRADESH)…

    here we don't even see sparrows now-a-days.

    I have a really sorrowful feeling towards my nature and towards my country…

    and i promise that i will try my level best to take the initiative in saving the bio-diversity……..

    my school has taken many steps to educate the students and say them the importance of bio-diversity….

    i request all the educational institutions in the world to take the initiative to educate the students as youth is an important part of this contemporary world….

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    World Wildlife spokeswoman Marie von Zeipel says the tiger is one of the most threatened species and could face extinction within 12 years. The organization estimates that there are 3,200 tigers in the wild.

    Von Zeipel told The Associated Press that the wild tiger population has shrunk 97 per cent in 100 years and that "if nothing drastic happens the [population] curve is heading straight for disaster."

    Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/10/22/tig

  13. snake cages says:

    “Almost all of America’s 7,000 tigers are born and raised here. reviews from tiger farms suggest there are many unscrupulous breeders, and activists allege that the make trades is cruel. What’s clear is the actuality that tigers are often kept in small pens, people die when safety is lax, and also the cats are hideously inbred to produce valuable white cubs.”

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