Transplanted tiger faces challenge
Unusual behavior provides clues to big cat's condition
Deborah R. Meyer, Correspondent
In April, executive director Pam Fulk announced the arrival of Carnivore Preservation Trust's newest rescues, tigers named Apache and Nitro.
The big cats were confused and grumpy after their 26-hour trip, but Fulk said: "We're already seeing their personalities emerge, For example, Nitro steadfastly refuses to acknowledge our presence just yet."
Without knowing it, Fulk had given an inkling of a mystery.
The nonprofit, 55-acre sanctuary in Pittsboro is home to 80 animals. The tigers came from Oakley, Kan., where they and three lions were being kept in a small, ramshackle enclosure in a junkyard.
"It was pieced together with the roof no more than six feet high" said Kathryn Bertok, the trust's curator. "It was one of those things that the tigers could have gotten out if they wanted to. There were eight to 10 inch holes so people could pet the tigers."
In February, a court ordered the facility to surrender its animals after a man broke in and was mauled by a lion. The Detroit Zoo took the lions, and Carnivore Preservation Trust accepted the tigers.
Shortly after the tigers arrived, Bertok noticed that Nittro was showing unusual behaviors, such as staring at the wall and failing to track moving objects with his eyes.
"I didn't feel like he was looking at me, and even if tigers don't like you they look at you," she said.
When their 30-day quarantine ended and the tigers were again sedated for transfer into their 8,000-square-foot permanent enclosure, veterinarian Angela Lassiter examined Nitro's eyes.
"His retinas and optic nerves appeared normal," Lassiter said. "But when he woke up in his new enclosure, it became obvious he was blind."
She suspected he had a congenital vision defect.
To teach Nitro where the sides of his enclosure are, Bertok marked them with vanilla scent. Different scents mark his food bowls and the doors that let him into another area. A mulch path will lead around the edge of his enclosure so he will know when he is walking near the fence.
"He gets around really well and is figuring out things like trees," Bertok said.
The heart melts with a look at the trust's first blind tiger, but Bertok and Lassiter emphasize that tigers are not big kitties. The trust takes extreme safety precautions.
"They have incredible personalities, but they can kill you with one swat of an arm," Lassiter said. "We get our animals from people who adopt them as pets who have no idea they are 500-pound killing machines, even when they are hand-raised."
Lassiter said Nitro has adapted quickly.
"He is more out and about than Apache, who doesn't care much for people," she said. "Apache is still not as trusting. Nitro comes up to the fence. He chuffles. He still bumps into the occasional tree and his nose gets bumped, but he is learning."