It is sad to read that the tigers we love so much are facing imminent extinction in the wild. These noble animals belong to forests, not zoos.
Many Chinese people take pride in talking about the vast size of their country. This makes me wonder why we can't spare some living space in the icy plains of the northeast and the humid rain forests of the southwest for the tigers.
Tigers are still being slaughtered for their skin and other body parts for their supposed therapeutic values. Despite the lack of any scientific proof, there are still many people among us who believe that tiger bone soup can treat rheumatism. I have seen dried tiger penis, believed to be a remedy for sexual impotency, displayed in lacquer boxes like rare jewelry in the show windows of herbal medicine shops in Hong Kong.
To be sure, tigers aren't the only animals facing extinction. But there is a special place in my heart for these big cats.
When I was a little boy in Hong Kong, I preferred nothing more for breakfast than Kellogg's cornflakes from a box with the face of a big cute tiger. Looking at the tiger and imagining it as a playmate seemed to have taken my mind off the chore of the morning ritual.
Of course, I know that tigers are brutal hunters. But tigers exude an aura of majesty and beauty that distinguish them from other big animals of prey, including the muscular lions, lumbering bears and slender leopards. I can certainly appreciate the wisdom of our ancestors in picking the tiger over other fierce and powerful animals to represent bravery and honor as one of the 12 shengxiao of the Chinese Zodiac.
The tigers in Chinese paintings almost always look ferocious. But the various characteristics attributed to the tiger as a shengxiao include passion, sincerity, affection and generosity, just like the one I remember on the cornflake box.
As an adult, I became a fan of American cartoonist Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, highly popular series of comic strips that depict the adventures of an imaginative six-year-old boy, Calvin, and his sardonic stuff toy tiger, Hobbes. Not all of us have had stuff toy tigers, let alone anthropomorphic ones. But the tigers that exist in our imagination are gallant, dignified and magnificent, the attributes of friends we always wish we have.
It is unthinkable to keep tigers as house pets to keep us company. But we all know that a tiger is, of course, a big cat. So, we simply turn our affection to the domesticated cats that, to us at least, share much of the attributes of their larger brethren.
There are many cat lovers among my friends. My colleague Zhang Kun in Shanghai raises four cats in her home. The latest addition to her cat family is an abandoned kitten with a hind leg crippled by one of those maniac cyclists. She took the kitten to a veterinarian for treatment and patiently nursed it back to health.
We enjoy listening to tales about the naughty antics of her cats, told by her with affection and enthusiasm. They are certainly not cuddly pets, but playful and detached, the Hobbes of our lives.
We don't need the Year of the Tiger to remind us of our magnificent friends in the wild. Our thoughts are with them all the time.
(China Daily 01/29/2010 page9)