Vegas school kids allowed to pet tiger cub’s tail "for luck"

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Jan. 26, 2010

DOUG ELFMAN: Kids get to pet tiger’s tail for luck

Tropicana illusionist Dirk Arthur, who works with big cats onstage, took a 10-week-old white Bengal tiger to a Hebrew academy on Monday to let 430 kids pet the cub’s tail for luck. Weird, right?

“There’s a myth that touching a tiger’s tail is good luck,” Arthur told me backstage (in this, the Chinese year of the tiger).

“I think that myth,” he said, “came from India, where if you were to touch a tiger’s tail in the wild without getting killed — you were lucky.”

With little cub Saber in his arms, Arthur walked up and down the auditorium of the Adelson Educational Campus (where Arthur’s producer’s son attends).

The cub got a tad nervous, so he hugged onto Arthur, occasionally licking Arthur’s ear, as kids from kindergarten through high school gave him a pet.

Yes, Monday’s event was cute, and there were a lot of “awww’s.” More than one girl said, “Oh my God, I want one.”

And yes, I’m aware some animal activists aren’t fans of big cats living in captivity, but today’s column isn’t about that.

Instead, I took the opportunity to ask Arthur some basic questions about the lifestyles of this cub and his other cats.

Question: Aren’t cubs, even this small, really powerful?

Answer: Yes. Saber is already “super strong,” Arthur said. If he grabbed or gripped you, he would do so with the strength of a man about the size of John Goodman. When he’s grown, he’ll be about as strong as 10 Arnold Schwarzeneggers.

Arthur said the cub isn’t dangerous yet, not in his hands, with his 28 years of training.

Q: Where did Saber come from?

A: This cub came from a Texas breeder who exchanges cubs with Arthur so both breeders can avoid inbreeding within their own animal collectives.

Q: How many cats does he have?

A: Fourteen.

“We have the largest collection, and the rarest collection, of performing cats in the world right now. We’re really proud of that, including snow tigers, African leopards, Asian leopards, black panthers, white tigers and an incredibly rare liger, which is part lion and part tiger.

“All the wild animals are always ‘wild.’ We never say ‘tamed.’ We just say ‘trained,’ because that’s the reality. We always have to be careful.”

Q: Where do these cats live?

A: On a couple of Arthur’s acres (tree-lined, grassy and “jungle-ish”) in southwest rural Vegas. They get transported to the Trop for shows, then are taken back home.

“They get lots of exercise,” Arthur said. “Every cat gets out every day. They’re all trained to walk on the (chain) leash. They love going to the show because everything is like a game for them. It’s fun.”

Q: Do they frolic together?

A: “Tigers and leopards live solitarily, so most habitants live separate — except when breeding or when a mother has cubs and raises cubs together.”

Q: Why did Arthur want to bring a cub (plus a brief film showing his animal habitat) to kids?

A: “People can watch ‘Animal Planet’ and see cats on TV and go to zoos. But when they actually see a tiger up close and can touch a tiger, I think it makes a much greater impact on people. We want people to know it’s important to preserve wildlife and preserve the jungles and forests of the world.”

Q: What does Saber eat?

A: Three or 4 pounds of raw meat each day. Now he’s on ground turkey and vitamin supplements for a high potency calcium diet.”

Q: Do his big cats play with catnip?

A: “Some people do give the big cats catnip. I’ve never had luck with it.”

Doug Elfman’s column appears Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at He blogs at


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