Tigers are king: Zoo exhibit treats residents like royalty
BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle
Posted on Sun, Apr. 26, 2009
When they are pleased, the two female tigers make chuffing sounds. They talk to caregivers with a roarr-roarr-roarr. The two male tigers are younger and shy, but they are learning quickly to respond when they smell food.
Still secluded from the public, the newest residents of the Sedgwick County Zoo are quickly adapting to their new home.
Tigers will go on display at the zoo next month for the first time in 16 years. The $3 million Slawson Family Tiger Trek opens May 22; zoo members can get a sneak peak May 16-17.
The exhibit is intended to immerse visitors in the tiger experience. Bamboo plants help give the feel of an Asian forest. Water runs through the 50,000-square-foot exhibit, and two pools will allow the tigers to submerge themselves on hot days.
The two tiger yards are big enough to support six adult tigers.
“It’s going to be a fantastic exhibit,” said Bert Castro, president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Zoo and board member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. He drove to Wichita a few months ago to see the exhibit’s construction.
“We are not in the business of competing against one another,” he said. “But I think this exhibit will rival any tiger exhibit in the country.
“…This exhibit is overall a very thoughtful plan. It’s considered the animals and the public. It’s good not only for Wichita but the North American population of tigers.”
‘Tigers are king’
Sedgwick County Zoo officials decided in the 1990s to exhibit leopards instead of tigers, after one tiger died of natural causes and the remaining elderly tiger was moved to another zoo.
Yet, visitors continued to ask whether the zoo has tigers, said zoo director Mark Reed.
“They have a lot of mystique about them that gives the feeling of power and strength,” he said. “They are magnificent animals.”
The zoo staff decided that if it could create a new exhibit for the tigers, it wanted to highlight that mystique and power. It also wanted to tell the story of how endangered the animals are.
Three years ago, Don Slawson — known for commercial developments like NewMarket Square in northwest Wichita — asked Reed to come to his office. He and his wife, Judy, wanted to do something for the zoo.
“I walked into his office, and it was filled with tiger paintings,” Reed said.
The Slawsons donated $2 million for the exhibit, and the zoo raised an additional $1 million.
“They needed a tiger exhibit, and I think they are the most beautiful animal of the whole bunch,” Slawson said. “Lions are interesting, but tigers are king.
“I just think if we are going to have a top-notch zoo — and we are on the threshold of having it — I just think we have to do it this way. We needed this exhibit.”
The tiger exhibit is one of several the zoo has opened in the past decade, following the $1.5 million Pride of the Plains lion exhibit in 2000, the $5.5 million Downing Gorilla Forest in 2004, and the $1.5 million Cessna Penguin Cove in 2007.
Still on the zoo’s wish list: a new elephant exhibit, expanded space for the hippos and a saltwater facility with sea lions and sharks.
For now, there are four tigers:
The two female Amur tigers are 4-year-old sisters. They arrived in January from the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich.
Amur tigers — also known as Siberian tigers — are the largest cats in the world. Male Amurs can weigh between 500 and 700 pounds; females between 200 and 400 pounds. The females at the zoo weigh 268 pounds and 264 pounds.
One is generally more friendly and relaxed, and more dominant than her sister.
The other likes to play with doors. Like a house cat, she sticks her toes underneath a door to play with whatever might be on the other side.
The males are Malayan tigers, 1-year-old brothers who arrived in March from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.
Malayan tigers are among the smallest. A males average 256 pounds; females 200 pounds. The zoo’s males weigh 200 and 150 pounds.
One is more dominant and inquisitive. He prefers exploring things on his own, but naps with his brother.
The other is more shy and reclusive. He doesn’t like to share his food.
Both subspecies have been threatened by deforestation and illegal tiger poaching. They number in the hundreds in the wild.
All four tigers will get new names. A contest ending Friday encourages people to vote on these choices for the females: Nadia, meaning hope; Zoya, meaning life; Zeya, meaning succeed; and Talali, meaning slanting upward.
And these choices for the males: Ahmed, meaning worthy of praise; Malik, meaning king; Kerajan, meaning kingdom; and Hakim, meaning wise.
The winning names will be announced May 15.
Because Sedgwick County Zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it will work with the Species Survival Plan to determine when the females will be eligible for breeding. It may be several years, said zookeeper Mike Forbes. More adults will be added when the females are ready to breed.
“We want to make sure the tigers have adjusted to their new home,” he said.
The exhibit includes two tiger yards, a tiger building and an observation tower where visitors can overlook the tiger yards.
Much of the exhibit features recycled building materials, which help give it the feel of a primitive village.
Visitors can walk into the tiger building and see zookeepers work with the tigers, inspecting their claws and teeth, and checking their chests with a stethoscope.
Rope mesh separates the spectators from the zookeepers. Stainless-steel mesh separates the tigers from the zookeepers.
The tigers have been taught through hand signals to stand on their hind legs and put their front paws on the wire mesh.
“We don’t want to give the impression to our zoo guests that these are house cats,” Forbes said. “They are still wild animals and could have the potential to hurt people. We don’t go into the pens and work them. We don’t pet them like house cats.”
The exhibit has been built with safety in mind, Forbes said.
In December 2007, a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo made international headlines when it jumped an exhibit wall and mauled three zoo visitors, killing one. The zoo’s wall was 12 feet, 4 inches high.
The Sedgwick County Zoo’s exhibit has 16-foot walls topped with a 45-degree overhang, with hot electric wire at the top and at nose level for the tigers. The voltage is similar to that used for cattle or other livestock.
The building also features glass viewing walls. Heated rocks are placed next to the glass so that the tigers will be motivated in winter to lie next to the glass.
“We have learned from the past exhibits,” Reed said. “Here, you can sit eyeball to eyeball and count the whiskers.”