July 5, 2007
THEIR star status is spruiked by towering temples and showcased on sunny man-made Queensland islands surrounded by adoring tourists who pay to stroke their young bodies. The late Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo and Gold Coast theme park Dreamworld display their hand-reared Sumatran tigers during human “interactions” or “presentations”.
But not in Melbourne. Yesterday at chilly Melbourne Zoo, three eight-month-old mother-reared Sumatran cubs rejoiced in a damp rainforest exhibit regarded as one of the world’s finest. Nakal, Satu and their sister Isha tore into a hessian bag laced with gorilla odour, while their protective mother Binjai stood alongside, ears back, green eyes burning into the school holiday crowd who gathered on Tiger Bridge.
The last thought in keeper Sam Cooper’s mind was to join the big cat family in a cuddly showtime frolic for the kids.
Like their Queensland cousins, the cubs are part of the managed international and Australasian captive breeding program for the species, which is critically endangered in the wild.
Whatever the misgivings about Irwin’s and Dreamworld’s style of tiger keeping and display, they, like Melbourne, donate generously to conservation efforts in Sumatra and elsewhere. And Mark Turner, supervisor of Melbourne’s rainforest precinct, said he would not judge the rights or wrongs of what other zoos do, but he has been assured that Irwin’s tigers are relaxed and stress-free.
As for Melbourne Zoo’s policy in rearing the three tiger cubs, Mr Turner said: “We could have gone the whole hog and taken them away from Binjai when they were young and spent copious amounts of time with them. We simply didn’t want to go down that path.” Melbourne, he said, had other objectives and “we’re not going down that road of putting a show on”.
Always determined to ensure that Binjai knew the cubs were hers, not “hers and ours”, Mr Turner and Ms Cooper have now stopped their short off-limit training sessions among the cubs. The sessions — soon to be held publicly through the fence — established a bond between keeper and cats which will help in their captive lives.
Ms Cooper, who has worked with Binjai since the cat arrived from the Netherlands three years ago, said Binjai remained central to her cubs.
“I see her training them every day with so many bits and pieces that I could never show them,” she said, listing snarls and pushes and expressions that convey unmistakable lessons.
“The cubs are like little mirrors of their mother. Everything that she does they are copying. Binjai shows what’s acceptable in their family group and what’s not. Even little things like when we feed her separately in the mornings, the cubs are now learning that when she gives them that growl they’ve got to stay back.
“We can’t teach that sort of thing.”
Ms Cooper was herself given a lesson last week when Nakal stopped and gave her an aggressive look any experienced tiger keeper could not mistake.
It was a message from a captive tiger with, thankfully, plenty of wild in the tank.