The Determination of Idiots

It is hard to impossible to stop a determined idiot.

This axiom came to mind as I read the story of the man who leapt from a zoo’s train. His athletic jump cleared a sixteen foot tall protective fence and landed right in the pen of a Siberian tiger. The tiger attacked the man severely.

I’ve been trying to think of valid reasons why the man would do that. From the reports I read the man seemed intent upon clearing the safety fence, so this was no accident. He wasn’t trying to escape a giant space scorpion or an icky bug or a girlfriend he was trying to break up with. Even if he was trying to commit suicide I imagine there are ample other avenues available, avenues less elaborate and ultimately more effective. This seems to me more in the field of a frat prank or a dare or drunken misplaced determination or a desperate ploy to get famous.

I think the guy is an idiot. If one applies Hanlon’s Razor, i.e. “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, he’s an idiot. Even if he’s not, even if there’s a valid reason for this bizarre chain of events, let’s assume for the sake of this post that he is an idiot.

We’re left with an idiot that did, deliberately and with malice of forethought, jump into a Siberian tiger’s pen. The tiger did what tigers do: the man was mauled. The man was rescued by zoo staff.

I’m sure that some people read the stories and were appalled that a tiger would do such a thing. They might demand the animal’s destruction for daring to harm homo sapien in such a blatant way.

Others might read that story and say, “How can we let people jump from a moving train over a 16-foot fence into a wild animal’s pen? We must implement laws and elaborate security systems to prevent this.”

The zoo did neither. The zoo’s director, Jim Breheny, handled the situation, in my humble opinion, appropriately based on the actual risk.

The Associated Press quoted Breheny as saying, “When someone is determined to do something harmful to themselves, it’s very hard to stop that. … The tiger did nothing wrong in this episode”.

The most telling part from both a risk management and incident handling perspective is the other statement from the Associated Press article I read: “Zoo officials said they would review safety procedures but stressed that the situation was unusual.” By the way, they’re not going to euthanize the tiger.

“We review everything, but we honestly think we provide a safe experience,” Breheny said in the Associated Press article. “And this is just an extraordinary occurrence. … Somebody was deliberately trying to endanger themselves.”

The lesson: don’t make more out of an isolated incident than is there. If the particular ingredients to a problem are all unlikely to rare, then the response should be proportional. This isn’t to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned from every event. Rather, a rational and judicial

The corollary: given enough resources a determined person can defeat security measures. As my Dad said to me after my childhood home was broken into, “If someone wants to get in bad enough they’ll find a way”.

The same is true for determined idiots.