Billy Ray Cyrus meets zoo’s namesake tiger cub

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Billy Ray Cyrus meets zoo’s namesake tiger cub

By Allison M. Heinrichs
Friday, October 3, 2008

At first, Billy Ray Cyrus couldn’t wait to get into the pen at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to get acquainted with the Siberian tiger cub that bears his name.

“Oh, I’m not scared,” the country singer said as he watched the cub bound about the enclosure Thursday. “Can we get in there?”

But as zoo President Barbara Baker helped him into a black, padded jacket to cushion Billy Ray tiger’s playful bites, Cyrus, 47, seemed to have second thoughts.

“Is he going to go after me?” he asked.

“Not in a bad way,” Baker said. “He just wants to play.”

Cyrus shook his head and zipped up the coat.

“What have I got myself into?” he said, slipping through the gate and into the enclosure to spend 15 minutes wrestling with the 5-month-old, 50-pound tiger.

Billy Ray the tiger was named in honor of the late Cordelia May, a Billy Ray Cyrus fan. Her foundation, the Laurel Foundation, made a donation for the opportunity to name the tiger.

May was the sister of Richard M. Scaife, owner of the Tribune-Review. Cyrus said he remembered meeting her in 1992 while he was filming a music video with one of her relatives, and again in 1996.

“Mrs. May had such a passion for wildlife,” Cyrus said. “This is a part of her spirit.”

Playing with the tiger made him feel “closer to God,” Cyrus said. “You look at an animal like that and see what an amazing creature (he is), and you know there has to be a higher being.”

Because there are only about 400 Siberian, or Amur, tigers left in the wild, Cyrus said he told the tiger he’s “here for a reason, to bring more attention to his species.”

Cyrus said he can relate to Billy Ray, who was raised by zookeepers because his mother refused to nurse him.

“He reminds me of myself in a lot of different ways. My mom and dad divorced when I was 5 … so I had hard times when I was a kid,” Cyrus said. “But when you survive adversity, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Billy Ray tiger has developed a playful personality, said the zoo’s lead carnivore keeper, Kathy Suthard, who escorted Cyrus into the pen.

“He’s very independent. He has an adventurous spirit,” Suthard said. “He keeps us busy, though. His new thing is to take all of his plush toys — and he has a lot of them — and throw them in his pool every day.”

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