Childhood and the Extinct Animal

I was in an airport when I saw the sign: there are only about 3,000 tigers left in the world. Actually, the phrasing on the sign was very diplomatic. It read something like, There may be as few as 3,000 tigers left in the world. Even as the tiger sprints toward extinction, it still defies the neat categorization of humans. We cannot be counted.

Still, the number remains, however approximate: 3,000. Point being that there are not very many tigers left.

I read the number and I immediately thought no, we can’t lose the tigers, but it wasn’t simply because the extinction of any creature is a tragedy. It was because the tiger stands for so much more than just an animal. “Tiger” is to “animal” as “red” is to “color”: a primary component of the category. One of the building blocks. A thing you learn about in kindergarten, for Darwin’s sake. After you’ve exhausted the creatures of the home and barnyard—cat, dog, pig, rooster, cow, horse, sheep—you level up to the animals of the jungle and the plain: tiger, lion, panther, zebra, giraffe. As a child, you don’t need to know—yet—about finches, anteaters, sloths, the mucus-covered stingray, the razor-toothed piranha. For a few years, it’s enough to know about the tiger and his compatriots.

The tiger was my brother John’s animal. Mine was the giraffe. I mean this literally: I had a tiny plastic giraffe, he had a tiny plastic tiger, both purchased in Rome. This dichotomy certainly shaped our taste in animals, if not our personalities themselves. I went on to favor graceful, vegetarian animals (the giraffe, the horse, the flamingo); John wore a pair of striped socks on his hands and was a tiger, John got a bike for his birthday that was decorated to look like a tiger. I collected small horse figurines, but there was always a tiger or two prowling around.

As a kid, you learn pretty quick that animals are mortal. Our family was cursed by a particularly gruesome string of pet deaths (ask my brother to tell you the story of the gerbils’ murder-suicide), but it’s not just about seeing a pet die, it’s about knowing that the animal world itself is in danger. I don’t remember the moment I realized that nature was not, in fact, a perfect biome that would go on forever and ever, but eventually I came to understand that it was grubby with human fingerprints—that it was burning out. Fireflies will die in a jar, no matter how many holes you poke in the lid; the baby bird you “rescued” is not going to survive off warm milk and crickets; the dog frothing behind the fence will never calm down, even after his owners have him neutered; the crisp shed skin of the snake is technically progress, but it will always look, to you, like a corpse.

Forever and ever, the primary animals of childhood march through our brains in a neat line: the dog, the cat, the horse, the cow, the lion, the zebra, the giraffe, the tiger. We owe them half of our personalities, three-fourths our strength of will. It’s sad that the dodo bird is extinct but the dodo bird did not teach us to snarl, to sleep in a tree, to devour, to embody power. That bird did not show us force, movement, menace, blood—the components of a passionate life. For that, we thank the tiger.

I know that time doesn’t go in reverse; what happens today can never affect what happened twenty years ago. But if the last tiger dies, I feel like hours and days of my childhood, too, will vanish from the earth. I won’t remember that there ever was a tiger. The little plastic tiger from Rome will never have existed. We’ll drift about, glib and unburdened, with no idea of the power that we’ve lost.