Tigers add exotic flair to Heritage Fest’s lineup

Tigers add exotic flair to Heritage Fest’s lineup

By Josie Kerk, Journal staff

Note: For information about Marcus Cook visit:

For its 25th anniversary celebration, the Black Hills Heritage Festival will feature guests definitely not from this area.

The star quality and stripes of two Royal White Tigers from Houston will be among the 100 craft vendors and more than 15 food vendors at Memorial Park. The festival begins July 1 at 4 p.m.

The tiger pair will show off their personalities in their habitat cage south of the main Rushmore Plaza Civic Center entrance. Splash, a 560-pound, 8-year-old male, and Gita, a 220-pound, 9-year-old female, travel as part of educational exhibits by Zoo Dynamics, a nonprofit zoo. White tigers have been extinct in the wild since 1958.

Keepers will share an interactive presentation about the cats, including a chance for festival-goers to feed the tigers whole poultry through a chute. They eat 25 pounds of food per day.

“When tigers are lounging around doing absolutely nothing, they burn up an average of about 15,000 calories per day,” said keeper Marcus Cook. “That’s the equivalent of about 400 Big Macs.”

Both cats are animated and physical, and each has its own personality. Splash is a bit of a “water junkie,” Cook said, and traveled with his own pool until someone was soaked during an exhibit. Gita has a sense of humor, and her Asian name means “a gift from an angel.”

“When you can get them to where they love people and they love to show off, that’s not a tiger, that’s a gift,” Cook said.

He has been around big cats every day for 22 years, and held newborn Gita at the Nashville Zoo before her first steps.

While Cook can walk with both of them in their cage and scratch their back or pet their ears, they do not make for good pets, and the exhibit is not a petting zoo, he said. Animals are kept 50 feet away from the public.

“Even though it’s a captive environment, they are wild animals and they are deadly. There is no doubt about it,” Cook said.

Keepers will be on hand to answer questions about the giant cats between shows. Cook said people tend to learn more about the animals by asking their own questions rather than reading a zoo display.

“Working with tigers, to be honest, is not too difficult to do. It just takes one very important thing, and that’s time,” he said. “Give the animals time, and never force the animals to do something they don’t want to do.”




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