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The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Vintage Departures)by John Vaillant
Reading Group Guide
1. The Tiger is a riveting book, with the momentum of a thriller and the depth of insight of an extended philosophical meditation. How does Vaillant create suspense throughout the book? What are the major insights he offers about tigers and the larger issues that come into focus through his investigation of the killing of Vladimir Markov?
2. What historical forces have contributed to the desperate conditions facing the people of the Primorye? How understandable/forgivable is their poaching?
3. Vaillant writes: “What is amazing—and also terrifying about tigers—is their facility for what can only be described as abstract thinking. Very quickly, a tiger can assimilate new information . . . ascribe it to a source, and even a motive, and react accordingly” [p. 136]. In what ways does the tiger that kills Markov engage in abstract thinking?
4. Does Markov deserve the fate that befalls him? Is it fair to say that he brought on his own death by stealing the tiger’s kill or by shooting at the tiger?
5. What kind of man is Yuri Trush? In what ways is he both fierce and thoughtful, authoritarian and at the same time sensitive to the desperation that makes people of the Primorye break the law? How does his experience with the tiger change him?
6. Vaillant attributes the attitude of entitlement of Russian homesteaders, at least in part, to biblical injunctions: “1: Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. 2: And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth . . . . 3: Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things” [p. 150]. What are the consequences of this way of viewing our relationship to the earth and other animals?
7. Chapter 18 begins with a epigraph from Moby-Dick. What are the parallels between Trush’s hunt for the tiger and Ahab’s pursuit of the whale and between the behavior of the tiger and that the whale in these stories?
8. After he helps to kill the tiger, native people tell Trush he’s now marked by it, that he now bears, as Vaillant puts it, “some ineffable taint, discernible only to tigers” [p. 290]. When an otherwise tame and placid tiger tries to attack him at a wildlife rehabilitation center, Trush wonders if “some sort of a bio field exists . . . . Maybe tigers can feel some connection through the cosmos, or have some common language. I don’t know. I can’t explain it” [p. 291]. Is this merely a fanciful conjecture, or could it be true that tigers can sense the presence of someone who has killed one of their kind? If true, how would it change our views of animal consciousness?
9. Vaillant suggests that, like captive tigers, most of us “live how and where we do because, at some point in the recent past, we were forced out of our former habitats and ways of living by more aggressive, if not better adapted, humans. Worth asking here is: Where does this trend ultimately lead? Is there a better way to honor the fact that we survived?” [p. 298]. How might these questions be answered?
10. Vaillant argues that “by mass-producing food, energy, material goods, and ourselves, we have attempted to secede from, and override, the natural order” [p. 304]. What are the consequences of this desire to separate ourselves from nature?
11. What makes tigers both so frightening and so fascinating? What mythic value do they have for humans? In what ways are they an important part of the ecosystem?
12. What does the book as a whole suggest about our relationship to nature, particularly to the animals that share the earth with us?
13. It is a precarious time, not just for the Amur tiger, but for all tigers. Poaching and the destruction of tiger habitat pose major challenges to the survival of the species. What would be the significance of the loss of the tiger? What positive steps have been taken to protect it?
14. What changes in human behavior need to happen in order to preserve the (Amur) tiger and similar species? How likely is it that humans will make such changes?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)
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