Human Paleopsychology

MensNewsDaily Column 1

Kent G. Bailey.  The Roy Horn Tiger Attack: Feralization in Animals and Human Beings.  MND,  November, 8, 2003.
     In a May 26, 2003, column, human paleopsychology was introduced as a means of making sense of the ancient evolutionary bases of human behavior.  This approach is based on the premise that human beings have a rich phylogenetic history that intrudes into every nook and cranny of human experience. 
     Yes, we humans are moral, ethical, and cultural beings, but our thin veneer of humanness and civility ruptures ever so easily.  Stress, a blow on the head, too many high balls, or a personal insult can phylogenetically regress us back to "cave man" impulsions or even back to subhuman levels.
     Now, what does all this have to do with the Roy Horn tiger attack?  Simply humans, animals often phylogenetically regress under stress or provocation.  This is particularly true for wild animals that have been domesticated, tamed, trained, and even put to work by their human masters.  The nice dog that attacks a neighborhood child on a hot day, the pet cat that hunts the back yard at night, or the circus elephant that attacks and kills a handler illustrate the commonness of sudden reversions to natural wildness.
     The technical term for reversion to natural wildness is feralization.  Such reversions may be more-or-less permanent, as with the family dog that joins a renegade pack, or it might be an isolated incident, as with the Roy Horn tiger attack.  In the 1980s, psychologist Robert Boice studied feralization in laboratory rats, and he marveled at the ease with which experimental subjects reverted to natural modes of behavior even after many generations of captivity.  He further stated these findings had "enormous implications" for both animals and humans.
     Experts have been all over the map trying to explain why the 600 pound, 7-year old white tiger named Montecore suddenly attacked Roy Horn during a show at the Las Vegas MGM Mirage Hotel on October 3, 2003.  Some say it was an accident or the act of a confused animal, and Horn's partner, Siegfried Fischbacher, suggested that the tiger was actually "protecting" Roy and helping him offstage.  Bernie Yuman, the pair's longtime manager, theorized that the animal was "distracted" and the casino's owner  Steve Wynn even suggested that the attack was set off by a patron's large hairdo on the first row!  These explanations verge on the silly with the apparent goal of protecting the image of the number one cash cow of Las Vegas...the Siegfried and Roy show.
     More to the point was animal behaviorist, Louis Dorfman, who commented that "stress led to the bite."  Jonathan Kraft, who runs the non-profit company Keepers of the Wild, theorized that the attack featured a "typical killing bite" (italics added).  When Roy fell onstage during the encounter with Montecore, he immediately became "prey" to the tiger.  Moreover, going for the throat and dragging the prey to a safe place are all part of the normal predatory behavior of tigers in the wild.  Indeed, the tiger attack was a classic instance of feralization...which is one of many forms of phylogenetic regression.
     The tiger attack tells us more than we want to know about the deep, inner minds of both animals and humans.  Indeed, the human brain is more a hair-triggered, Saturday night special than a reliable Swiss watch.  When injured, stressed, or provoked, the brain scans its lower levels for a solution when upper levels cannot solve the problem.  Yes, Montecore was probably stressed and distracted on October 3rd, but feralization defined the essence of the attack. 
     Prior to the 1950s, the Semai of Malaysia were a peaceful tribe for whom murder, physical punishment of children, and intergroup aggression were unknown.  But after the Semai were recruited by the British to fight Communist rebels, a sudden kind of insanity overcame them which they called "blood drunkenness."  Anthropologist R. K. Dentan quoted them, "We killed, killed, killed...we were drunk with blood."
      Compare this example with recent revelations about an elite unit of American soldiers that mutilated and killed hundreds of unarmed villagers in 1967 during the Viet Nam war.  Soldiers of the Tiger Force Unit dropped grenades into bunkers where villagers hid, shot farmers without warning, and even made necklaces from the severed ears of the dead.  Really, are we humans all that different from Montecore?  Instances of human feralization and reversion abound.
Kent G. Bailey is professor emeritus of clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.  His major focus is on how ancient evolutionary processes affect current human affairs.   His major monograph is Human Paleopsychology: Applications to Aggression and Pathological Processes.  Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987.
Study these pages and become a paleopsychologist!
Kent G. Bailey [email protected]