Tiger’s tale takes turn to West

Tiger’s tale takes turn to West

City zoo’s popular attraction moves to Colorado to be with one of its own kind

Sunday, February 22, 2009
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The once-tiny Amur tiger cub that was rejected by its mother and hand-raised by humans to become one of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s prime attractions is growing — and gone.

The now 9-month-old, 135-pound tiger cub named Billy Ray (Cyrus) by zoo donors but always called Grom by zookeepers, was trucked to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Jan. 17. He went on exhibit there Feb. 5 with Zoya, a female Amur tiger cub five weeks his junior whose mother also failed to nurse her.

He won’t be coming back. That saddens Kathy Suthard, the zoo’s lead carnivore keeper who, when the cat was much, much smaller, took him home to Carrick at night, occasionally shocking other motorists who saw the baby tiger lying in his favorite spot on the back window ledge of her moving car.

“People on Route 28 might have had some accidents when they saw him lying by the back window. Some would drive close and pull out their cell phones to get a picture,” said Ms. Suthard, who took the tiny tiger home to bottle feed him after his mother, Toma, was unable to nurse him.

He weighed just 2.2 pounds when he was born on May 11 during a Mother’s Day thunderstorm and dubbed Grom, a Slavic word for thunder. The zoo’s veterinary staff placed him in intensive care, a regimen that included round-the-clock monitoring.

“When he couldn’t nurse, we almost lost him,” Ms. Suthard said. “We didn’t dare leave him alone overnight.”

From the second day after the cub was born, he went home each night for weeks with Dr. Cindy Stadler, then the zoo’s chief veterinarian, veterinary technician Libby Galvanek or Ms. Suthard.

At first, the tiny tiger was transported in a Rubbermaid container. But as he grew, he had the run of her car, Ms. Suthard said.

“He stayed with me the most because I had my dog for backup,” said Ms. Suthard, whose four cats mostly ignored the tiger but whose 80-pound black Labrador retriever, Bella, would run with Grom in her fenced-in back yard.

“The cats thought he was bizarre. They’d swat him and he’d jump back even though he was bigger than them,” she said.

“And Grom respected Bella more than [the tiger] respected us. He never messed with Bella. He’d sleep with the dog next to the sofa where I would sleep.”

To substitute for his mother’s missing milk, he was fed a milk-replacement product commonly used to feed domestic kittens, which he didn’t like much. As he grew, his feedings expanded to include strained chicken baby food, which he liked a lot, and then horse meat, which he loved even more.

Grom’s sleepovers with Ms. Suthard and the other zoo employees ended by mid-July.

“He’d grown to 25 pounds and, although I was still able to handle him, the furniture was at risk,” she said. “He also was getting very willful in the car, moaning and crying and wanting to crawl into my lap while I was driving and biting my head. That wasn’t safe.”

Grom roamed the Highland Park zoo’s snow leopard enclosure for most of the summer and fall, delighting visitors and growing quickly. Adult Amur tigers — formerly known as Siberian Tigers until they became extinct there — grow to about 11 feet long and weigh more than 450 pounds.

The Amur tiger is the world’s largest cat and one of five subspecies of tigers still alive today. All five are threatened with extinction; three others have gone extinct in the last 70 years. Only about 400 Amur tigers now are living in the wild, where they are threatened by poachers, habitat destruction and loss of prey.

The Pittsburgh zoo had plans to eventually breed Grom. But the Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan Program, which manages breeding programs for species threatened with extinction, suggested the move to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where he would be teamed with the young female, Zoya.

“It was tough when I heard he was leaving,” Ms. Suthard said. “I wasn’t really ready to see him go, but he got a ‘bud’ and we thought that would be good for him to have contact with another young tiger. It would be selfish not to send him.”

Grom will remain at the zoo in Colorado Springs until he reaches maturity, at age 21/2 to 3. Then he will be bred, possibly with Zoya, or with another female tiger at a different zoo.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo near Pikes Peak was founded in 1926 and is home to more than 800 animals representing approximately 142 species, 30 of which are endangered. In addition to Zoya and Grom, the zoo has two adult Amur tigers, Helga and George, in its collection.

All reports Ms. Suthard has received from Colorado — and there have been many — indicate Grom is thriving. After spending 10 days in side-by-side cages while getting accustomed to one another, Grom and his new playmate now roam and run in the zoo’s Asian Highlands exhibit.

“Because he’s so much bigger — she’s just 90 pounds — she was a little intimidated at first, but not that much,” Ms. Suthard said. “When it was time to go out in the exhibit the first day, she went out but he didn’t. He was afraid. She kept going back inside to entice him and eventually coaxed him out.”

Ms. Suthard said she’s planning a trip this year to visit and hang out with Grom.

Will he recognize her?

“Oh yeah, I have no doubt.” said Ms. Suthard, who readily volunteers that last year was her best at the zoo because of the time she spent with Grom.

“The hands-on experience made it the most amazing summer I ever had,” said Ms. Suthard, who has worked at the zoo for 29 years. “A friend called it ‘The Summer of Grom,’ and it was great.”




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