It’s Wisdom Wednesday. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant recounts the story of a wounded Siberian tiger that tracks and kills the poacher, Vladimir Markov who had previously wounded him. After being shot in the paw the tiger went to Markov’s cabin, killed his dogs and destroyed everything with Markov’s scent. He encircled the cabin, leaving a ring of his tracks. He sat and waited and eventually killed Markov on his return. This story is corroborated by Yuri Trush, the game warden who investigated Markov’s death and leader of an anti-poaching squad. 

We think of vengeance and murder as uniquely human capabilities, but in this story, the tiger apparently demonstrates the sentience required to commit what Yuri Trush described as “no random killing”. “It was a case of premeditated — and justified — murder.”

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It would be one thing if the tiger killed Markov on the spot. That would just be instinct.  But the murder took place long after the injury and in a remote place relative to the site of the injury. 

Is it fair to say that we underestimate the cognitive capacities of animals? Does this action suggest sentience on behalf of the tiger? This possibility is both chilling and fascinating.  

As my miniature version of the Tiger (a seven pound “grey tiger”) lies sleeping next to me, I think about these questions in regards to him. So, too, to my 100 pound Rhodesian Ridgeback. 

What do you think? Was this tiger sentient? That is, did he have self-awareness? Was he able to imagine a future and make choices about it. Did he make a conscious decision to stalk and kill Markov?

I’m not an ethologist, so I don’t know the answer to these questions and I’m not even sure they could answer this question with certainty. I’m interested to know what you think. If this tiger is sentient what then? What are the implications for us?

There is a famous exchange in the history of Zen where Joshu was asked if a dog has buddha-nature. His response: “mu” (no-thing/emptiness). Can a tiger discover his or her own buddha-nature? Perhaps the answer is “mu”!

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