By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published March 27, 2007
TAMPA – Amai Rivera-Martinez pressed first his finger and then his entire hand to the viewing window, as if that could make a white tiger notice a 3-year-old boy.
“I don’t think he likes me,” Amai told his little sister as the animal walked away.
Inside the Asian Gardens exhibit at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo on Monday, Yala paced. The 9-year-old white tiger and his mate, 10-year-old Nikki, became new park residents in mid January and are now on permanent display, bringing fresh life to a tiger exhibit that had been crippled by tragedy.
Donated by a private breeder whose business was closing, the white tigers live in the same exhibit that housed Enshalla, a Sumatran tiger shot and killed after it escaped and threatened a zoo employee in August.
Zoo officials left Enshalla in the past Monday, not invoking her name when announcing the new arrivals.
Lowry Park is working to bring another female Sumatran to the zoo. For now, Eric, the male Sumatran, will share the exhibit on alternating days with the white tigers. A second person now checks the locks on gates any time animals are moved, zoo spokeswoman Rachel F. Nelson said.
Yala and Nikki are on limited display until they get used to their new home and establish a pattern of behavior, Nelson said. White tigers originate from Bengal tigers and are most famously associated with Siegfried and Roy. The tigers are white because of a rare gene that some animal experts say is fostered by inbreeding.
Yala and Nikki were born and raised in captivity. It’s unclear how many white tigers exist in the wild, where they have short life expectancies because they can’t easily hide from their predators.
Busch Gardens has five white tigers, including two 5-month-old cubs the park received in December.
Chris Massaro, assistant curator for Asia at Lowry Park, said that Yala is very protective of Nikki.
“He’s a good cat and seems to be happy here,” he said.
Massaro described Nikki as affectionate. She enjoys getting close to the viewing window when visitors are present, he said.
The 300-plus pound animals sleep 20 hours a day on average. But zookeepers are trying to encourage them to spend more time out in the open with guests.
That would suit kids fine.
On Monday, 3-year-old Amai of St. Petersburg and 5-year-old Tyler Baran of Safety Harbor, debated the basics: What color were the new tigers? The two initially couldn’t agree. Blame it on the stripes.
“They’re not white,” Amai insisted. “They’re brown to me.”
“Well, my dad said they were white,” Tyler fired back.
With that, Amai seemed persuaded.
Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About white tigers
White tigers originate from Bengal tigers. They are not albinos, and they are not a separate subspecies.
Appearance: They have blue eyes, pink noses and white fur covered in chocolate-colored stripes. White tigers are born to tigers that carry the unusual gene needed for white coloring.
Life expectancy: Tigers typically live 15 to 17 years, but white tigers typically have shorter lives because they are easily seen by predators.
Where to see them: Yala and Nikki are on permanent display at Lowry Park Zoo. They will alternate days for viewing with the zoo’s Sumatran tiger, Eric.
How rare: Zoos around the world house white tigers, but it is extremely rare to find one in the wild.