Safety move led to cub’s death

Safety move led to cub’s death

Steve Butcher
March 16, 2008

WHEN Melbourne Zoo’s three rare Sumatran tiger cubs went public for the first time last year, their keepers faced a dilemma.

Should they lower the level of the water in the exhibit’s pool to prevent any risk that a cub might slip in and drown?

Or should they keep it deep enough that adult tigers ? the cubs’ parents ? could not stand on the bottom and get the traction to spring over the safety wall into a crowd of onlookers?

The risk to human safety was too great and the water was kept deep. The result of that rational decision was the death last Thursday of one of the cubs, Nakal.

When the cub went missing about 4pm, zoo staff feared he might be on the loose. They evacuated scores of tourists and visitors and called police. But Nakal ? which means naughty, or cheeky, in Indonesian ? was found dead in the pool about 5.30pm.

For distraught keepers, the male cub’s drowning was a bitter blow. They had waited 16 years to breed the litter, born in October 2006.

After the birth, the cubs’ mother reared them for months in a private off-limits area of heated dens and devoted human keepers. The risk, as it turned out, came when they moved into the acclaimed new rainforest exhibit, surrounded by the pool.

But there were no hand-wringing recriminations among zoo staff, just devastation, when confirmation came yesterday that 16-month-old Nakal had inexplicably drowned without witness.

The zoo’s general curator, Dan Maloney, announced that an autopsy by vet Kate Bodley had found no evidence of trauma, seizure, heart attack or poisoning. Nakal had died in a tragic accident. Upset staff had received grief counselling, he said.

The death was even more puzzling given that tigers enjoy water and are strong swimmers.

The cubs are the offspring of 13-year-old Ramalon and his female mate Binjai, 6, who came to Melbourne from Rotterdam Zoo four years ago.

Sumatran tigers are the most endangered tiger species in the world, with a population of between 300 and 400.

The Melbourne Tigers basketball club and AFL club Richmond, sponsors of the zoo’s Tiger Taskforce endangered species breeding program, have sent messages of condolence.

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