Calif. county fair features show with Fla. tigers

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By Todd Cralley/STAFF WRITER

Ancient cultures revered tigers, and apparently people at the Santa Barbara County Fair do, too.

The Tigers of India show, featuring eight endangered Bengal tigers, is proving to be a popular new attraction this year.

It’s estimated that only 2,500 Bengal tigers are left in the wild, a precipitous drop from 100 years ago when the population was estimated at as many as 45,000 on the Indian subcontinent and surrounding region.

That’s what has motivated the work of Josip Marcan, who runs the 80-acre Marcan Tiger Preserve in the panhandle of Florida, dedicated to preserving the endangered species as well as educating the public about the tiger’s plight.

Part of the preserve’s educational efforts is the Tigers of India show at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. daily.

It includes a snow white tiger, the rarest of the Bengals, with only about 45 known to exist in the world. It also includes brilliant golden tabbies, of which 70 are known to exist.

Andy Spolyar, one of three trainers touring with the show this summer, said he believes he has found his niche in life.

“I was a pre-veterinarian major in college but always wanted to work with exotics – tigers and elephants,” he said between shows Friday. “I went down to the preserve and did a six-month internship on a volunteer basis. I guess I found my niche.”

Spolyar has been with the preserve for 10 years and you can tell by his interaction with the giant cats he definitely loves what he does. He had them literally eating out of his hands, obeying his commands, and he showered them with love and affection during the 3 p.m. show.

“Dr. Marcan has been breeding Bengal tigers for 40 years,” he said. “We work with about 40 tigers at the preserve.”

That work is often nonstop, according to Spolyar.

“There is a huge time commitment with these animals – 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “We provide them with a lot of play time and mental stimulation to ensure that they don’t get board.

“We have a great relationship with the tigers. It’s based on love and affection, trust and respect.”

Just like they do when they are at home on the preserve, the tigers are given lots of attention when they are on the road.

“They get a lot of stimulation on the road,” he said. “This fair has been good. The sights, sounds and the people are good for them. We got the Ham Bone Express right next to us. It may not be good for the pigs having a predator eye them all day, but the tigers seem interested.”

The crowds of fair-goers that gathered for every show seemed every bit as interested in the tigers performance as well.

“I love tigers,” said 17-year-old Kaitlyn Schneider of Orcutt. “I thought that was pretty cool the way they taught them to do all those tricks. It’s good they’re protecting them too.”

For her 15-year-old sister Julie the tricks were captivating.

“I loved the way (Spolyar) had the tigers walking on their hind legs,” she said. “And when that one stood up and put its paws on the man’s shoulders was cool.”

Taking a truckload of tigers on tour may seem like a daunting task when it comes to feeding the big cats. An average adult tiger will consume between 15 and 20 pounds of red meat every day.

“We have a freezer full of food for them,” Spolyar said. “We’re pretty picky about what we feed them, too. We get our beef from one place in New York. Their diet is mostly beef and from time-to-time we supplement that with chicken and grain.”

Todd Cralley can be reached at 347-4580 or

July 14, 2007

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