Keepers miss Samson’s deep purr

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Keepers miss Samson’s deep purr
Wednesday, April 09, 2008

PRESCOTT – It is the chuffing – that deep, masculine purr – that the staff and keepers at Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary are going to miss the most.

As they walk past the empty enclosure at the front of the sanctuary, they imagine that Samson the tiger is still there, following their movements and talking to them with his distinctive chuffs.

Sanctuary officials decided to put the 10-year-old Bengal/Siberian tiger to sleep after veterinarians diagnosed him with inoperable cancer in early March. His health continued to decline and zoo officials opted for humane euthanasia. Veterinarians put Samson to sleep March 25.

Samson came to live at Heritage Park Zoo in 2003 from a private animal park in Texas.

Sanctuary Director Pam McLaren said zoo officials had hoped Samson would live another eight or nine years, the typical lifespan of a tiger.

McLaren said Samson’s keepers and two veterinarians were with him when he died.

“We had a couple days notice before he was euthanized so we invited staff members and zoo members to visit him before he died,” McLaren said.

Education Coordinator Nina Bricko said, “Samson was always such a treat with the kids. At a recent outreach program, a five-year-old girl told me her brother cried when he heard Samson died.”

Bricko said that during night hikes children realized Samson was following them (inside his enclosure).

McLaren joined the zoo staff this past June. She said he was “particularly close to other staff members. What I know is that he was a ‘chuffer.’ If you talked to him, he would talk back. Samson definitely had his own personality.”

McLaren said tigers, more than other big cats, have to get to know their handlers. She said most tigers are solitary and usually go about business while on display.

“Samson was different. He interacted with visitors,” she said.

The director said Samson’s keepers became very close to him when he first came to the zoo.

“He was deathly ill when he came. His pancreas was shot. Some of his keepers stayed with him around the clock,” McLaren said.

Claudette Masters has worked as an animal keeper at the zoo for one year. She cleans enclosures, feeds and keeps an eye on the animals, looking for any changes in health or behavior.

Despite a fence that always separated them, Masters said she developed a close connection with Samson.

“I always called him ‘orange kitty.’ He could get very personal for such a massive cat. He was beautiful,” Masters said.

Samson also was camera-shy, depending on the photographer.

Angela Stewart worked with Samson for the past three years. She said his favorite treat was “wild game. He loved lean red meat.”

Stewart said things are strange without Samson.

“As I go past his enclosure, I think I can still see him and hear him chuffing,” she said. “It is sad that he is gone, but it is good that it happened quickly and he did not suffer.”

Steward said Samson loved to play cat and mouse in his pool. She said he would get low in the water with only the tips of his ears showing. Then, when she walked by, he would explode out of the water.

“He was a good cat. He had multiple moods. You never knew which one he was in until you let him out of his night house. The first thing you would do is chuff at him. If he chuffed back, he was in a good mood,” Stewart said.

Masters said Samson also reacted to powerful scents. She said after staff cleaned his pool he would sit under the highly chlorinated water.

“He was just a big, impressive cat that didn’t mind being looked at. I think he actually liked it,” Stewart said. “He was one of the more steady animals here at the zoo.”

Samson’s death has opened a door for the rescue of another tiger.

McLaren expects the zoo to acquire a new tiger by the end of the year.

She said staff members would modify the enclosure, and then zoo officials would start looking to “find a tiger that fits in here-one that we can provide above-standard care.”

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