In my case, to protect myself from Richard Parker while I trained him, I made a shield with a turtle shell. I cut a notch on each side of the shell and connected them with a length of rope. The shield was heavier than I would have liked, but do soldiers ever get to choose their ordnance?
The first time I tried, Richard Parker bared his teeth, rotated his ears full round, vomited a short guttural roar and charged. A great, full-clawed paw rose in the air and cuffed my shield. The blow sent me flying off the boat. I hit the water and instantly let go of the shield. It sank without a trace after hitting me in the shin. I was beside myself with terror—of Richard Parker, but also of being in the water. In my mind a shark was at that very second shooting up for me. I swam for the raft in frantic strokes, precisely the sort of wild thrashing that sharks find so deliciously inviting. Luckily there were no sharks. I reached the raft, let out all the rope and sat with my arms wrapped around my knees and my head down, trying to put out the fire of fear that was blazing within me. It was a long time before the trembling of my body stopped completely. I stayed on the raft for the rest of that day and the whole night. I did not eat or drink.
I was at it again next time I caught a turtle. Its shell was smaller, lighter, and made for a better shield. Once more I advanced and started stamping on the middle bench with my foot.
I wonder if those who hear this story will understand that my behaviour was not an act of insanity or a covert suicide attempt but a simple necessity. Either I tamed him, made him see who was Number One and who was Number Two—or I died the day I wanted to climb aboard the lifeboat during rough weather and he objected.
If I survived my apprenticeship as a high seas animal trainer it was because Richard Parker did not really want to attack me. Tigers, indeed all animals, do not favour violence as a means of settling scores. When animals fight, it is with the intent to kill and with the understanding that they may be killed. A clash is costly. And so animals have a full system of cautionary signals designed to avoid a showdown, and they are quick to back down when they feel they can. Rarely will a tiger attack a fellow predator without warning. Typically a head-on rush for the adversary will be made, with much snarling and growling. But just before it is too late, the tiger will freeze, the menace rumbling deep in its throat. It will appraise the situation. If it decides that there is no threat, it will turn away, feeling that its point has been made.
Richard Parker made his point with me four times. Four times he struck at me with his right paw and sent me overboard, and four times I lost my shield. I was terrified before, during and after each attack, and I spent a long time shivering with fear on the raft. Eventually I learned to read the signals he was sending me. I found that with his ears, his eyes, his whiskers, his teeth, his tail and his throat, he spoke a simple, forcefully punctuated language that told me what his next move might be. I learned to back down before he lifted his paw in the air.
Then I made my point, feet on the gunnel, boat rolling, my single-note language blasting from the whistle, and Richard Parker moaning and gasping at the bottom of the boat.
My fifth shield lasted me the rest of his training.