A crown for the tiger king

Exotic, entangled, extinct

In the short story “Blue Tigers,” Jorge Luis Borges gives us a Scottish adventurer seeking a legendary cat he’s only seen in dreams; in the jungle, he finds no feline but only a trove of small stones, smoothly identical, in the dreamt-of hue. They prove uncountable: no matter how carefully he divides and inventories the stones, each tallying results in a different sum. He becomes infected with a perilous obsession for these mysterious tokens, relieved only when he gives the stones to a beggar in Lahore. “I do not yet know what your gift to me is,” the beggar tells him, “but mine to you is an awesome one. You may keep your days and nights, and keep wisdom, habits, the world.”

One of the stranger stories of the coronavirus pandemic: last week, Nadia, a four-year-old Malayan tiger living in the Bronx Zoo, tested positive for COVID-19. Though several other cats in the zoo were showing signs of respiratory disease, Nadia was the only one tested, as the procedure requires general anesthesia; we can be sure it’s no simple matter taking a nasal swab from a tiger.

I remember learning the term as an adolescent taking a veterinary-science project in 4H: Zoonosis. The word, for animal-human disease transmission, struck me with a kind of magical power, as if it named an older, eldritch form of unhealth; syllabling some of the horror of hybridity, of metamorphosis; its -nosis (an archaic term for “disease,” from the Greek) seeming a species of gnosis as well.

Practitioners of implacable violence, living in the remotest habitats, tigers would seem to make unlikely icons for social distancing. Word of the tiger Nadia’s affliction arrived at the peak of popularity for Tiger King, the controversial documentary series from Netflix, however. Coronavirus’s housebound audiences thus were primed with vivid awareness of the strange ways humans seek intimacy with predatory cats—in particular, the peculiarly American way of glamorizing tigers, which places emphasis on cuddling with cubs, whose cozy neoteny is only enhanced by the promise of sheer size, strength, and ferocity to come.

Joe Exotic’s petting zoo for predators seems a kind of decadent departure from deeper traditions of doing tiger in Asia, where the bodies of cats are transformed into products conferring power and virility. Such products, from pelts and teeth to “invigoration liquor” made from boiled-down bones, long have circulated between the villages and cities. These often are produced at the craft level, with groups of families coming together to acquire a tiger, butchering and communally processing its body into commodities for gifting, local sale, or personal use. Today, however, these practices merge with the shadowy economies of modern Asia, through markets and supply chains, the wetwork of global capital. In 2017, a wildly popular YouTube video, showing a group of tigers chasing a drone in the snow, was revealed to index the industrialization of tiger products, in large “tiger farms” like Harbin Siberian Tiger Park, in Heilongjiang province, where the video was made.

In The Art of Not Being Governed, anthropologist James C. Scott examines the status of forest-dwelling peoples of southeast Asia. Hmong, Karen, and other groups traditionally have been understood as ancestral to the great civilizations of the river valleys. Scott advances an arresting alternative: to see small-scale societies not as survivors from a primordial past, but as those who walk away from city-states with their taxation and conscription—and yes, their epidemics. Scott uses the name “Zomia” for this discontiguous realm of forested uplands, scattered across seven modern Asian nations, where marginalized people have practiced a “primitivity” that is actually a precarious, deliberate statelessness.

Zomia is the tiger’s realm also—and the tiger’s freedom, like that of village-living folk, is both glamorized and exploited by those who live in cities. We might think the “wet markets,” reported as sources of pandemic zoonosis, in light of Zomia, as places where the ancient and uneasy rivalry of forest and city mingle in ideological and biological entanglement.

Like the beguiling glamor of Borges’s blue stones, the abstract and fungible properties of commodities hide mysteries—of blood and bone, of tissues that merge in kinship, of bodies whose borders are specious.

Although zoonotic disease equally can mean transmission from human to animal, the latter case is often called “reverse zoonosis”—as if disease properly flows upward, a chthonic corruption infiltrating through the roots of the tree of life. The binary syntax here, however, reveals a semantic problem with the whole notion of zoonosis. For viruses, there is no strict separation of human and animal. We make a multispecies cosmos; species are worlds that viruses colonize and inhabit. But really, I don’t know what a species is; lately, I’ve begun to think it might best be thought of as all those creatures without whom there can be no you.

I wonder if, in some deep sense, viruses don’t hold the key to the mystery of species: that cherished borders and barriers are brittle, specious, and that acknowledging entanglement is the only way to win a livable world.

Katsukawa Shunshō, Japanese (1726 - 1792). Tiger and Bamboo. Harvard Art Museums 1933.4.1273.

“Blue Tigers” may be found, in a translation by Andrew Hurley, in Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions (Penguin 1999).