When Nine Lives Are Coming to an End

At 21-years-old, the signs of aging are already evident on Barbara, a Bengal tiger at the Haifa Educational Zoo. She moves about indifferently and without any joie de vivre in her cage, her eyes are dull, her back is humped and her movements clumsy. In addition to hearing problems and worn teeth, Barbara also suffers from rheumatism, which causes her considerable pain. Now her caretakers at the zoo are trying to decide whether to ease her suffering and put her to sleep, or whether to continue enabling her to live a life of pain. As with human beings, here, too, moral questions arise as to man's right to "play God."

On cold and rainy days her caretaker, Salem Hajajara, places a heater near her to warm her body and ease her suffering, and every day he puts pills into her food to treat the pain in her joints. But Salem also remembers the days when Barbara was still young and energetic, when they played tug-of-war and knock-over-the-garbage-cans. "Today, she doesn't even eat meat, she makes do with chicken. It's heartbreaking to see how she is becoming increasingly indifferent and tired," he says.

In nature, they say at the zoo, there is no chance Barbara would survive in her current condition. Though she is still able to control her bodily functions and does stretch her muscles from time to time, it is in fact the medications that are keeping her alive. "She is elderly and in pain. They are giving her medications, but is it normal to keep an animal on medicines," wonders the veterinarian who is caring for Barbara. "We are trying to decide whether to let her reach the time of death alone, or whether to make this happen sooner. An animal does not exhibit suffering - it's part of the survival mechanism. But are we really succeeding in making things easier for her, or are we in fact making matters worse?"

Zoo Director Dr. Etty Ararat says that on the one hand, putting Barbara to sleep to prevent her from continuing to live with hurt and suffering could possibly be considered as a measure of kindness to animals. But on the other hand, putting her to sleep would bring her life to a premature end. "When you hear the animal and can see that she isn't eating and is clearly suffering, you say that this is heartbreaking - this is dying. Barbara's situation is very bad and sadly there is no alternative to her current state."

Apart from the moral dilemmas of euthanasia, another reason for weighing all available options is the strong connection that has developed between Barbara and the zoo's employees. Barbara came to the zoo as a cub, grew up there and has since lived in the animal facility. Salem has been taking care of Barbara for 19 years now and he refuses to come to terms with the possibility that she might be put to sleep. "I raised her like an infant, like a child. I've spent more time with her than with my family. Today I'm doing what I can, warming her cage with straw, giving her the medicines by hand. And now they are going to take her out of my hands. I've informed them that I will not be able to cope with this. And when it happens, I've asked to be on vacation."