Several months ago, I received an email from a friend asking me to sign a petition supporting the Bengal Room, the future of which was in peril due to renovation plans.
“Stuff the Bengal Room,” I told him. “Save the Bengal tiger.”
I was being flippant (sort of), and I did subsequently sign the petition, but the recent theft of the posh eatery’s signature prop raises an important question: Who really stole the Bengal tiger’s skin?
The pilfered hide was reportedly acquired in the 1990s during a government-sanctioned hunt in India.
The Bengal Room might be missing its skin, but what about the tiger on whose back it belonged?
We live in an era in which, thankfully, public consciousness of the sentience of nonhuman animals has grown tremendously. Not only have scientists established what has always been painfully obvious to children and sensitive adults — that nonhuman animals are every bit as capable of experiencing pain and fear as we are — but that they experience a wide range of emotions ranging from joy to grief, empathy, jealousy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2012, a group of prominent neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge issued the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, the upshot of which was that consciousness is not unique to humans and that, in fact, a long list of nonhuman animals, including mammals, birds and octopi, are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are.
Thanks, at least in part, to the influence of social media, there is a growing sensibility of the many ways in which nonhuman animals suffer atrocities at the hands of humans. Think of the public outcry over the killing last year of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe and more recently, Harambe the gorilla in Cincinnati, as well as the decision of Sea World to cease orca shows and captive breeding because the public has a diminishing taste for what amounts to unbearable cruelty.
These all serve to reflect a dawning, widespread recognition that the lives of nonhuman animals matter as much to them as ours do to us, and that perhaps we need to rethink a relationship — between human and nonhuman animals — that has historically been characterized by ruthless exploitation.
A tiger skin belongs nowhere but on a tiger’s body. The thought of a majestic creature having been slaughtered and dismembered simply to serve as décor for a swanky diner is, frankly, dismally unappetizing (and that’s putting it diplomatically).
The Bengal Room would do well to register the growing ethical impulse of compassion for animals and let this symbol of bygone brutality slip quietly away. Better yet, let them retrieve the hide and publicly incinerate it on the lawn of the Empress in ritual repentance.
There are many talented Canadian artists who can express the majesty of the Bengal tiger with a glorious, life-sized painting in the same spot on the wall, a work that would celebrate life, instead of death for décor.
Such a work might also serve to memorialize the ill-fated life of the individual Bengal tiger some people thought nothing of killing for the most frivolous of reasons. If stealing is indeed wrong, then let the Bengal Room put its money where its mouth is, and make amends for stealing the life of this sentient creature, and the skin off its back.
Lisa Warden is a communications consultant living in Victoria and the moderator of the Asian Animal Protection Network.