Preserve that tiger
Preserve that tiger
By PATRICK MALONE
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
There’s no body of water in the fenced ring where the Marcan Tigers perform at the Colorado State Fair. But the animals’ handlers are diligently minding the pool. More specifically, they’re tending to the gene pool of the endangered Bengal tiger.
The Marcan Tiger Preserve is pushing public awareness of the animal’s plight through a breathtaking series of free shows each day at the expo. Show times are 1:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. at Fountain Park on the Fairgrounds.
During the early performance on Wednesday, trainer Andy Spolyar and his six striped cats dazzled a crowd of about 200. Spolyar coaxed the critters into unexpected acts by offering them hunks of raw beef.
The show began with the familiar tune of “Circle of Life,” made famous in the movie “The Lion King.” Out came four varieties of Bengal tigers: the standard orange and black; the golden tabby, whose orange coat was accented by reddish stripes instead of the black lines people are accustomed to seeing; the white Bengal; and the rarest of all, the snow white Bengal, of which only 30 are known to be in existence.
One tiger balanced on a huge, red ball while another lied on his back for Spolyar to rub his tummy, relishing the experience like a house cat might. Nina, an 8-year-old standard coat Bengal, stole the show. She obeyed, but on her own terms – with a palpable sense of confidence bordering on an air of superiority.
“She’s definitely the diva tiger of the group,” said handler Mike Inks.
Nina abided by Spolyar’s commands like her fellow performers, but she consistently added an extra twist. When the group sat up on its hind legs on step ladders, Nina crossed her paws as if to say, “We all do it well, but I do it best.”
When the tigers circled the ring in shoulder-to-shoulder unison, Nina kept to the outside and granted the nearest animal a few feet of space.
After Inks announced that Nina was “definitely the athlete of the group,” she moon-walked across the ring and brought down the curtain on the 30-minute show.
Undoubtedly, Nina’s the straw that stirs the drink.
A deeper message belies the entertainment. Each of the tigers hails from the Marcan Tiger Preserve in the Florida panhandle. More than 40 years ago Dr. Josip Marcan established the refuge to guarantee the survival of the species.
Inks said Bengal tigers, native to India, numbered approximately 40,000 at the start of the 1900s. A recent census of the Bengal tiger by the World Wildlife Fund found the present population in the wild to be around 1,500.
Traditional Chinese medicine (which relies heavily on all parts of the tiger), a poor Indian economy coupled with the high prices that tiger parts fetch, human encroachment and limited geography in the wild that has spawned inbreeding and poor general health among Bengals all are factors in the species’ decline, Inks said.
He also said that stewardship of the animals by the Indian government, which promised to protect them, has lapsed into corruption.
The tigers from the Marcan preserve have it better than most. They are tended to by committed handlers who agree to be part of the animals’ lives from the womb to the tomb. Inks and Spolyar, for instance, alternate years taking the day off at Christmas. Otherwise, they’re with their charges. That’s a handsome commitment to an animal that’s expected to live up to 20 years in captivity.
Through the sale of stuffed toys and photos of the tigers, shows like the one being put on at the Fair generate funds to keep Marcan’s vision alive. The overall aim is to keep bloodlines pure in hopes of sustaining the species and eliminating the genetic flaws of inbreeding.
Eventually, the group hopes to fertilize animals in the wild with the healthy genetic lines they are developing in captivity.