David Bly: Bengal tiger skin not a safari trophy

David Bly / Times Colonist

July 7, 2016 12:36 AM

Was the now-missing tiger skin that hung on the wall of the Empress Hotel’s erstwhile Bengal Lounge a symbol of those glory days when Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set on the British Empire? Or did it symbolize the shameful history of colonialism, when profit and rampant imperialism ran roughshod over human rights?

Perhaps neither. Whatever the reasons the Empress owners had for tacking the tiger skin up on the wall of a restaurant, the striped pelt has its own story. And it’s not, as one might think, the tale of a wealthy playboy shooting a trophy for bragging rights. It’s about a Victoria surgeon who was helping people and saving lives.

Peter Clarke of Saanich has been amused and bemused by the controversy over the tiger skin that hung in the Bengal Lounge for half a century. The skin, he said, was acquired from his friend, Dr. John McIntyre.

“He told me about doing pro bono work in a mission hospital in northern India in the 1960s,” said Clarke.

“I think he was there for four or five months — that was before I met him. I think he was practising in Quesnel at the time.”

McIntyre’s tasks included stitching up surviving victims of two man-eating tigers that were terrorizing the village, and the villagers asked if he could do something about the tigers. So McIntyre shot the tigers.

“I suspect they were younger cats,” said Clarke. “Who knows — they may have even been orphans. Normally, humans are not a primary food source for tigers, but if these were young and hungry and on their own, they probably figured humans were much easier prey.”

McIntyre kept one tiger skin for himself; the other was acquired by the Empress Hotel, which used the skin as part of the decor when it renovated the Coronet Room in 1969 and renamed it the Bengal Tiger Bar.

Not everyone approved then.

“To make sure people remember the new name, a tiger skin has been splashed above the fireplace at the far end of the room and walls along the walkway into the bar have been decorated with poorly executed pictures of growling tigers,” wrote Victoria Daily Times columnist Elizabeth Forbes.

“Even the waiters have been caught up in the act. They now wear (a bit self-consciously) small, hard-to-control turbans in bright cerise tones. The big windows have been concealed with strips of psychedelic coloured materials.

“There may have been need for renovation. Perhaps some modernization. But why … why … why … the new name? Why the phoney decor?”

But the Bengal caught on, and when the current owners of the venerable hotel decided this year to bring an end to the Bengal Lounge chapter, many mourned its passing.

Others, though, welcomed the change, seeing in the lounge’s theme a link to a dark colonial past. The tiger skin was also seen as a symbol of the evils of trophy hunting.

But to Clarke, the tiger skin is a link to a friend who gave freely of his time and skills. McIntyre frequently went to the Arctic to work in hospitals there. When Clarke and his family wanted to help someone else, rather than exchanging unneeded Christmas gifts among themselves, McIntyre suggested helping children on Baffin Island. That was the beginning of a foundation that sent toys and other supplies to impoverished Arctic communities each Christmas.

Last month, the tiger skin was stolen from the Bengal Room. It’s still missing.

Whoever took it has, pardon the phrase, a tiger by the tail. Displaying it in a home would be foolish, given how easily it could be identified as stolen goods. And getting rid of it would be a challenge — the trade in animal trophies such as tiger skins is so strictly regulated, it would be nearly impossible to sell the skin.

Clarke knows — he was asked to help sell the other tiger skin for McIntyre’s widow (McIntyre died in 1999), but it was just too much hassle, even though the tiger was legally killed and the skin comes with all the necessary documentation.

It would be good to see the tiger skin returned and preserved, not as a symbol of the British Raj, but as a memorial to a physician who gave freely of himself to people in need.

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