Rare Siberian tiger finally venturing out of cage in Billings

By CLAIR JOHNSON, The Billings Gazette – 11/14/06

BILLINGS — Months after arriving at ZooMontana, Luna, a Siberian tiger, finally is venturing outside her cage. Luna came out into the tiger exhibit for a full day last week, all on her own.

“We didn’t want to force her,’’ ZooMontana Director Jackie Worstell said Monday.

Since coming to ZooMontana on Jan. 5, Luna went outside once at the end of March. But she wasn’t eating or drinking and became dehydrated, Worstell said. So she was tranquilized with a dart and brought back inside.

“Since then, she hasn’t gone out,’’ she said. “We were kind of concerned about her.’’

In July, the zoo called in Mark Atkinson, a wildlife veterinarian with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Atkinson has been working with Luna’s keeper to figure out why Luna was reluctant to go outdoors.

Luna would pace her catwalk, wouldn’t even look outside and was losing weight, Worstell said. Luna would get so stressed she would just shake, she said. “She would just hunker down in the back, totally stressed out.’’

Atkinson put her on a relaxant and kept the door to the exhibit open.

“Their patience and diligence finally paid off,’’ she said.

Luna is a “completely different cat’’ from when she arrived, Worstell said. Luna is gaining weight and “not sitting back in a corner snarling at us now,’’ she said.

Luna is 7 years old — a tiger teenager. Her mother in Minnesota became ill and had to be euthanized. Luna, a surplus cat, had never been exhibited before arriving at ZooMontana and had never been moved.

Luna came to ZooMontana as part of a multistate tiger shuffle that sent the zoo’s previous female tiger, Nadia, to Minnesota. Such trades serve as means of maintaining a healthy captive population by exchanging animals for breeding. There are no plans to breed Luna to Prince, ZooMontana’s male tiger. Luna and Prince are two of only 100 Siberian tigers in captivity in the United States. Native to eastern Asia and northern China, the tigers are estimated to number only 420 in the wild.

Luna is still taking relaxants but probably will be weaned off them, Worstell said. Atkinson still consults with the zoo and its volunteer veterinarian, Don Woerner of Laurel.

When Luna was outside last week and for a half-day over the weekend, she played along the fence, pounced and rolled in the grass.

“It’s been pretty neat to see,’’ Worstell said.

http://www.helenair.com/articles/2006/11/14/montana/ a09111406_11.txt

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