Tiger, Tiger, fierce and fast, in the gardens of north Belfast

An escaped animal from Belfast Zoo causes some consternation for our intrepid columnist

Fabien McQuillan

Fabien McQuillan

Fabien McQuillan writes a weekly diary about getting to grips with his new life in rural Tyrone

Tiger prowling
A monkey going missing from the zoo is one thing, but a tiger? (Ben Denison/Getty Images/500px)

Someone once said if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand him.

There has been an increasingly frequent feline visitor around our house lately and the kids have taken to feeding it leftovers and leaving out milk.

“That will only encourage it to stay. Surely somebody owns it?”

“We do,” said Dermot.

Fionnuala was unexpectedly accommodating to the creature. “As long as it doesn’t come into the house and it catches mice, it can stay. It’s like a miniature tiger.”

There were cheers from the children and I smiled wryly, thinking about my last encounter with a tiger.

I was up the Antrim Road with one of my best friends, Ricky, having a couple of pints, and we had gone back to his house for a nightcap.

He lived up at Ben Madigan, and we were having a great laugh. He was yammering away about his gas barbeque, and his da’s single malt, the mighty Cure album he had, and the new amp for the hi-fi.

He was home alone that evening as his (well-to-do) family were all away in France and we had the house all to ourselves. We had made beautiful steaks and sausages out in the balmy garden, and guzzled a few cold beers, and were fixing ourselves a whiskey in the kitchen when a news flash came on the radio that sobered us up a touch.

“A male Bengali tiger has escaped from its enclosure in Belfast Zoo and a search is currently being undertaken. It is recommended that homeowners in the vicinity remain calm and lock windows and doors. Please safely lock up any pets.”

Belfast Zoo, located in the Cavehill area north of the city.
Belfast Zoo

We stared at each other for a moment. His house was just down from the zoo – and there had actually been an escaped lemur in the garden a few years back. But a tiger?

We went into the living room, but Robert Smith’s cheeky vocals on the new amplifier couldn’t drown out our increasing anxiety, and we turned it off to face the silence.

The back garden was lit with footlights but we couldn’t bear to look out, so we closed the curtains. That just made it worse so we opened them again and switched off the lights.

Every movement of a leaf had us jumping out of our skin, and then Ricky reminded me that there were still scraps of meat on the barbeque.

Ricky was an animal nut and I asked him about tigers, and the likelihood of one actually coming into the garden.

“They are from a different world,” he said, quietly. “Everything they say, about being able to climb trees and swim for miles and run at 50mph, is true. The strength and velocity of the thing is incredible.”

I felt a chill. He went on. “Their sense of smell and hearing is beyond a human’s comprehension. And they can see in the dark.” We looked out at the dark and could see nothing.

“And the zoo tiger is no less powerful because it’s captive. If anything, they are fitter and stronger than a wild tiger. It’ll run through gardens and over fences like they aren’t there; move through the city like wind.”

“And then what?” I was trembling.

“Then it’ll sit for a while somewhere quiet and smell out something to eat.”

“Well, it won’t break through the window surely?” I pleaded.

“Funny, a tiger can’t comprehend glass, despite its intelligence. Three quarters of a tonne moving at speed would smash through that in a second.”

We sat in the dark and waited for death, armed only with a bottle of expensive scotch, and awoke the next morning to the doorbell ringing. It was the postman, and we asked about the tiger.

“Ach, the oul thing took a heart attack and fell into the moat. That’s why they couldn’t find it. It had no teeth nor nothing.”