This morning as I was getting ready for work I was greeted by a friend of mine who asked about whether I had heard of the death of an Iranian tiger cub. Further investigation and questioning revealed that the cub in question was actually a cheetah cub from a critically endangered species, the Asiatic (or Iranian) cheetah. As it happens, this particular cheetah cub had a name, Pirouz, and was a symbol of hope and resilience and freedom for Iranian people, who even sang songs about the animal. For more than twenty years now, Iran has been seeking to manage the recovery of cheetah populations within its country, and a year ago there was apparent progress in these efforts when three cheetah cubs were born. Two of them quickly died but the third one survived and was a beacon of hope for people who wanted to see this noble and admittedly cute cub live freely and for many years and help bring about the revival of the species as a whole.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. At least officially, Pirouz was taken to a veterinarian hospital with kidney problems and died, but as is often the case in these troubled times, the official story has not met with universal satisfaction. A host of questions naturally follow when we look at the failures of Iran’s efforts at keeping any cubs alive: Does the Iranian government have the ability to run its cheetah revitalization efforts or does the species need to be kept alive outside of its native land? What was the cause of the cub’s kidney problems, assuming that is indeed the reason why the animal died? Did the cub catch some sort of illness? Was he poisoned? Did he have a congenital defect that results from the small population of cheetahs and their lack of genetic fitness as a species? These are only some of the questions that spring obviously from looking at the official story, even assuming that what is being reported is in fact accurate.
It must be readily admitted that Iran is far from alone in having big cat species that have suffered drastic losses in population to be endangered. The area where I grew up, Florida, has a critically endangered species of big cat, the Florida Panther, which lives in the Everglades, a swampy region in the southern part of the state where the cat has its final refuge. Throughout Asia there are a variety of populations of the endangered tiger, with populations threatened in Siberia, China, Indonesia, and India among scattered groups and varieties of the single tiger species that have fallen on hard times throughout the continent. Sher Khan’s descendants have declined from ruling over the jungles of India to being barely tolerated big cats who are often subject to being poisoned by local peasants and brought ever closer to extinction. If Pirouz’s premature demise is not unusual among the vulnerable and threatened and critically endangered varieties of wild and large cat that exist in this world, it is still a lamentable one.
What is it that makes a cub a symbol of hope for a nation? What was it that led people to see a small cub of a nearly extinct species as a beacon of freedom in these dark days? We tend to think of big cats as noble animals who rule over forests or swamps or plains, hunting down prey animals and feeding their cubs on the successful efforts to bring down larger animals. Yet those big cats are themselves also subject to being hunted down by powerful men who think of themselves as bigger and stronger men as a result of killing other killers. One can look back into history and see this on the walls of the palaces of ancient Assyrian rulers and others like them, the picture of the waste of life that results from wanton slaughter of animals who kill to eat. It seems that a great many people find themselves represented by noble animals who simply want to be free to live, even as others wish to wipe them off the face of the earth because they want to be the only killers left in existence.