VANCOUVER — Before last week, the biggest wild cat conservation officer Jeff Ginter ever tangled with was a 58-kilogram cougar. On Friday morning, Mr. Ginter came eye-to-eye with a dazed tiger nearly three times as big.
The three-year-old Siberian tiger, whose origins and destination are shrouded in mystery, was wandering loose near B.C.’s busy Alaska Highway after a tragic vehicle wreck that killed a passenger and tied up traffic for hours.
Mr. Ginter was immediately struck by the creature’s massive head and muscled shoulders. “They’re quite impressive.”
The 23-year veteran was taken aback, too, when the animal’s owner arrived on the scene and told conservation officers — who were armed with tranquilizer guns — that he intended to coax his tiger back into the cage himself.
The owner, who asked that his name be withheld, approached the tiger, gave it a pat on the head, tied a rope around its neck and led it in the direction of a bear cage.
“He almost walked it out, just like you walk a dog,” Mr. Ginter said yesterday in a telephone interview from Dawson Creek, B.C., 1,200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.
“There was probably a moment of truth or two for him to be walking up there,” Mr. Ginter said, adding the tiger appeared agitated as it was led into the caged enclosure.
“It was pacing back and forth, kind of doing the head-rocking thing that a larger carnivore would do, and the hair was kind of raised up on its back.”
Eventually, the tiger was pulled into a bear cage by a rope that conservation officers threaded though the enclosure and attached to the lead leash.
It was a peaceful end to an otherwise tragic accident.
The tiger got loose Friday morning after the pickup truck that was pulling its trailer collided with a gravel truck on the Alaska Highway between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, B.C.
The passenger in the pickup was killed in the crash, RCMP said. They have not released the passenger’s name.
The tiger was being transported from the Vancouver area to Outback, an animal sanctuary in Taylor, about 55 kilometres north of Dawson Creek.
One of the owners of Outback said the tiger belongs to her and another partner, but refused to comment further.
The former owners, who ran the attraction as Hidden Valley Exotics Mini Zoo, sold their property approximately a year ago. The zoo was run by a local family and featured another male tiger, llamas, lemurs and exotic birds.
Since the new owners took over, its hours of operation have been drastically reduced, a tourism official said.
A zoo watchdog group said there are as many as 15,000 tigers in captivity in North America. Their natural habitat is Asia. There are fewer than 5,000 tigers left in the wild, Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck Canada said. Siberian tigers, which can be found in Russia, China and North Korea, are rarer still, with fewer than 400 left in their natural environments.
The vast majority of tigers in captivity in North America are hybrid tigers, Mr. Laidlaw said. They can be purchased for as little as several hundred dollars.
“The chances of anyone getting a true-bred Siberian is pretty darn remote. Most of tigers out there [in zoos], their genetic background is completely unknown. Nobody’s keeping careful track because it’s basically . . . roadside zoos.”
Whatever its origin, the tiger Mr. Ginter encountered was fairly complacent when its owner appeared.
“He [the owner] was obviously taking a risk,” he said. “He knew the cat better than anyone else. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt. It is his property.”
In fact, the tiger was calm right up until it was forced into the cage.
Once inside, Mr. Ginter said the tiger went “ballistic” for several minutes, banging its body around the cage.
Owning an exotic animal is not a violation of any wildlife regulations in British Columbia, Mr. Ginter said