Mr. Patel seems to merge his knowledge of animals and running zoos with his ideas of parenting in Martel's Life of Pi. Mr. Patel draws parallels from the animal kingdom to the human world while also teaching the boys to respect all forms of life. Not only do Ravi and Pi grow up learning about animal behavior in captivity but they also learn universal principles regarding the laws of nature. Chapter 8 specifies one day in particular when Mr. Patel makes it a point to teach his boys the following:
"Life will defend itself no matter how small it is. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous" (38).
Mr. Patel says these lines to the boys after using a hungry tiger eating a goat to demonstrate how dangerous tigers are. The object lesson is so intense that the boys are sure not to forget to stay away from tigers, which seems to be the main idea behind the tiger/goat demonstration. This lesson doesn't teach Pi to stay away from tigers, though, because common sense and growing up at the zoo have already done that for him. Pi explains this point as follows:
"I would like to say in my own defense that though I may have anthropomorphized the animals till they spoke fluent English . . . I never deluded myself as to the real nature of my playmates. My poking nose had more sense than that. I don't know where Father got the idea that his youngest son was itching to step into a cage with a ferocious carnivore. But wherever the strange worry came from--and Father was a worrier--he was clearly determined to rid himself of it that very morning" (34).
The knowledge and skills that Pi uses to keep him safe and coexisting with a tiger on the lifeboat are not necessarily the same ones that he learns from his father in chapter 8. Pi employs knowledge and understanding of animals' sense of territory, along with their predictable behaviors in the wild and captivity, to help him train the tiger, and take control of his life-threatening situation while alone at sea. Therefore, other than driving home the point to respect a tiger's strength and ferocity, the object lesson of the tiger and the goat doesn't do much to help Pi years later on the lifeboat. Pi actually uses the knowledge he obtains from reading and learning about animals on a daily basis to help him to survive his days at sea with a tiger.
The lesson that Pi's father teaches him by using a tiger and a goat occurs in chapter 8 of part 1. Mr. Patel is attempting to teach Pi a lesson about the dangers of animals and humans. Mr. Patel arranged for one of the zoo's tigers to be starved for a few days. Then he brought his wife and children to watch a goat be released into the tiger's habitat. The tiger made short work of the goat. Then Mr. Patel walked his children around to various exhibits and explained the dangers of each animal.
"There are animals we haven't stopped by. Don't think they're harmless. Life will defend itself no matter how small it is. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous. It may not kill you, but it will certainly injure you."
The lesson that Mr. Patel is imparting on his children is that life will defend itself until its dying breath.
I do not believe that the tiger lesson helped Pi survive on the lifeboat. Pi knew before the lesson that tigers were dangerous, so the lesson was a bit redundant. What saved Pi's life on the raft was the knowledge that he had gained while working at the zoo. He learned what was needed to keep animals alive and happy; therefore, Pi was able to keep himself alive. Keeping Richard Parker happy meant Pi could keep on living.
As for Mr. Patel's parenting abilities vs. his zoo keeping abilities, they are both equally serviceable. Mr. Patel obviously cares for his children, but he doesn't exude warm fuzzies all of the time. That's how he treats the animals too. That doesn't make him a bad father. In fact, I think he does an admirable job of making sure that his children are as safe and educated as his circumstances allow.
Mr Patel's parenting skills are on par with his zoo keeping skills - adequate but not brilliant. He makes sure that the animals and his sons have a comfortable environment with a minimum of danger and enough food.
The goat and the tiger experience do little for Pi in preparing him for the more dangerous experience of his life. The boys hardly needed to be shown dangerous a tiger can be. The father is merely giving the boys a visual point - however, having been raised in a zoo, the boys already knew a great deal about wild animal behavior.
What keeps Pi alive on the boat is a not the lesson in the wildness and unpredictability of animals but the day to day needs of the animals. Through his father, Pi has learned how to be a zookeeper. He has also learned how to become the alpha animal to keep himself safe. All of his childhood experiences living in a zoo contribute more to his staying alive than his father's lesson in the nature of animals.