Worldcons are great places to network, especially when you're on the lookout for
material for a fanzine. Some of the best articles we've ever published here in
Mimosa have been the result of some chance meetings at worldcons with fans
who have good stories that deserved to be told. MilPhil was no exception to this,
and Nicki was introduced to the writer of the following article in the Green Room.
We hope we will read more by him -- in the future!
Introduction to a Tiger
One of the first questions I am asked when I tell people about working with lions and tigers is, "How did you get involved?" There are two answers. First the short, "I like kitties;" and the longer one, "I was at a convention and saw this guy walking a tiger on a leash. I asked if I could pet the tiger and about half an hour later, I was a volunteer at the breeding park."
Actually, it was even longer than that. The tiger was Romeo, one of the male Siberians at the park. He was a friendly, mostly biddable cat and we hit it off immediately. I sat with him in his enclosure for about half an hour, petting him and scratching his ears (see photograph below). Then, Steve Henning, the owner of the park, asked me if I wanted to help take Romeo for a walk. I did. We walked around the convention center and chatted. Toward the end of the stroll, Steve asked me if I wanted to see something neat. I did.
From one of the stands nearby, he borrowed a helium balloon and showed it to Romeo. The tiger was excited and sat down expectantly. Steve released the balloon and as it passed his head told Romeo that it was okay. The tiger leapt, his back feet rising over our heads and grabbed the balloon in his paws. On the way back down, he bit it. On the ground, he rubbed his nose against Steve's hand and dropped the balloon's remnants into it. I always wondered if he had roared right after that if it would have come out falsetto.
The Heroine Lioness
As a volunteer at Safaripark, I learned a lot more about the park and its objectives. The first was to preserve the species of tigers still alive in the world today. There used to be seven distinct species. Today, there remain only three. The park has two, the Bengal and Siberian. We were in negotiation with the government of Indonesia for a breeding pair of Sumatran tigers, but the repeated problems they've had have pushed our chances to almost nil. The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the extant species and the Siberian is the largest.
The second objective of the park is to breed the big cats and increase the available gene pool. We have about sixty cats, lions and tigers for the most part, but we have half a dozen cougars that have been rescued from abusive situations, a lynx that was brought in by Arkansas Game and Fish, and a South American puma who is the special pet of Debbie, Steve's wife.
Steve's interest in big cats began about a dozen years ago. At that time, he owned a Christmas tree farm near Kansas City. He was having some work done when he spotted a young lioness locked in one of the worker's cars. He protested about leaving the lion in a closed vehicle and was told that if he cared so much for the damned thing, he could have her for a hundred bucks. So he forked it over and began to discover both the rewards of living with big cats and the fact that it costs a bunch of money to keep them in calories.
In his attempts to keep Sarah, the lioness fed, he began to take her around to his friends and customers and beg for money. After one of these evenings, he and Sarah were driving through one of the rougher areas of Kansas City. Sarah had her head in Steve's lap when he stopped for a red light. Three men approached the truck and yanked the door open. Their apparent intent was to take the truck, and when they saw Sarah, their intentions immediately changed to putting as much distance between themselves and the 200 pound lioness as possible. But they made the mistake of not closing the truck door first.
Now a lion is like a dog in one respect -- if you run away, it'll chase you. The three would-be truckjackers headed west at as many knots as their little legs would afford with Sarah happily in pursuit. Steve told me that he almost broke his neck trying to get out of the truck before unfastening his seat belt. He remembers yelling something intelligent like, "Hey, you guys, come back with my lion."
There wasn't far to run. At the end of the block, the young men discovered a utility pole and when Steve approached, they were trying to get as high as they could. Sarah had her front paws high against the pole and moaned an invitation to come down and play some more.
A bartender whose establishment was across the street looked out and called the police, and four police cars pulled into the intersection not too many minutes later. One of the officers rolled his window down a fraction of an inch and told Steve that if he would "control his lion," they would get out of the cars and check out the men who were still hanging from the pole.
A belt looped around Sarah's neck was sufficient to control her and the police began the process of arresting the utility pole ornaments. It is unlikely that three would-be felons were ever so happy to get into a police car.
It turned out that all three were well-known to the gendarmerie, with long records. Steve went home after being interviewed repeatedly. About six months later, a certificate of appreciation from KCPD arrived, addressed to 'Sarah the Lion'.
Playing with Lions and Tigers
As I became more familiar with the individual cats, their habits and stories, I was used as a docent for visitors. We would walk around and I'd talk to them about the kitties. One of the things we tried to do was educate our visitors about the place and necessity of the larger predator in the ecologies where they live. We also did outreach programs at schools. The wonder in the eyes of a kid, who hasn't seen an animal except on television, as a cub is placed in his lap for petting is one of the real thrills of working for the program.
One Saturday afternoon, Steve Henning asked me if I would like to be his backup when he went into the Siberian enclosure. That was a compound with Romeo and three more tigers as occupants. All were about the same age, around 20 months and weighed around 200-220 pounds. I agreed and we prepared to enter.
At the gate, I told him in a loud voice, "If they kill me, let `em eat me."
"Oh no," came the instant reply. "You're too fat. We have to restrict the cat's cholesterol intake."
During that marvelous half hour, I realized that I really loved these big guys. (Well that's a generic really. The four Siberians were Romeo, Rajah, Fergie, and Tess two breeding pair. We try to give the cats names beginning with the same letter as their sire's. In this case, both Romeo and Rajah were born to Tyson and Tia. Tyson Foods has been a consistent source of both food and cash for the park.) And I found out that they had a sense of humor, could laugh, and were practical jokers.
When I bent over to pet one, another would jump on my back and slide off. As I walked across the enclosure, one would throw itself down beside me and stretch out a hooked paw to trip me. With Steve watching my back (tigers love to attack from the rear), I stood in the middle of the compound and talked to the watching visitors. They were shouting and pointing, but if Steve wasn't worried, neither was I. I felt a warm, moist mouth close gently around my ankle, another attempt to trip me. When I bent to pet Fergie, she regretfully released my ankle.
When a tiger was successful in either tripping me or sliding off my back, it would 'chuff'. Chuffing is the sound they make when they are happy to see you... Or laughing. It sounds like a low pitched putt, putt, putt. We chuff back, especially when we are training them and they do something well. If a tiger doesn't chuff when we approach their enclosure, we just don't go in.
When we left the compound, I felt energized as if I had taken some kind of tonic. The other volunteers told me that they thought that the cats had so much energy that some of it "rubbed off" when we petted them. I also learned that sometimes their practical jokes can be painful. A favorite trick is to bite the bottom of anyone bending over. Usually the bite is just enough to straighten you up with a snap, but sometimes the tiger misjudges and we get new holes in us.
Another thing that I learned right after I left the enclosure was that tiger spit would make a fabulous styling mousse. My wife was laughing at me as I walked out. Each tiger in turn had put its front paws on my shoulders and licked my hair. She showed me in a mirror that I was now 'punked up', with my hair standing in all directions, spiked and held by that spit. It happens that tiger's tongues are like other cats, rough, perfect for a styling comb.
When the cats got bigger, jumping on our backs would drop us to the ground with a huge "oof." Imagine three or four hundred pounds landing on your back when you're bending over. They would chuff and get off. Often, when I sat on top of their house to talk to visitors, one or another would leap to the roof (I had to climb) and sit next to me. They would lick my hair and nudge me or lean against me until I slid off the roof. Then they would dive down to lie atop me. That was when I learned that tigers can see color. When my face reached just the right shade of purple, they would hop off, chuffing.
I'm sorry to tell you that none of us can do that with Romeo and Fergie, his mate or Rajah and Tess anymore. When they reach sexual maturity, the tigers become more dangerous. We can still approach them as individuals. They still rush to the bars of their enclosure, chuffing and putting their noses through for a kiss, but going in with more than one is just too dangerous now. Romeo even snapped at Steve the other day, and Steve had raised him from when he was three days old.
While being with a group of young tigers is more or less like visiting a locker room after a winning football game, the lions are an entirely different story. I think that since tigers are mostly solitary in the wild, they really don't know how to view us when we visit. Lions, however, have the pride mentality hard-wired into their natures.
Probably the most important part of that mentality is dominance. There is a definite pecking order within each pride. The lions have to establish just who is boss the first time we enter their compound. The upshot of finding out who can boss us and who we can boss is something like being initiated into a tough street gang. I ended up bruised and shaken.
Oddly enough, each day is a little different with lions. It can sometimes be my day to be boss and sometimes the dominant male's or female's. Luckily for all of us volunteers, lions are pretty transparent in terms of their emotions. There are no less than seventeen body language and vocal signs that it's their day. Ignoring these signs usually results in a painful lesson and more holes. The lesson doesn't seem to be vicious, just a reminder that it is their day.
Feed the Tiger
Lions and tigers in the wild eat differently than they do in captivity. Both cats tend to gorge in the wild, eating upwards of 60 pounds of meat after a big kill. Since they are both hunters, there can be some pretty slim periods between meals. But feeding our cats the way they eat in the wild would result in shorter life spans and sometimes very grouchy lions and tigers.
A lion needs about ten pounds of meat per day to stay healthy. Tigers eat about the same. We feed frozen chicken, beef from local farmers who have had a cow go down for various reasons, and any other animals we can get for free. I have to say that local chicken packers have been very generous with their waste parts like wings, backs and necks.
Frozen meat is fine for feeding the animals. We don't bother to thaw it since it gives their teeth and jaw muscles good exercise. We try to feed meat with the bones still in. We found out the hard way that feeding boneless meat can result in a calcium deficiency that kills.
The cats eat less in the summer than the winter. The caloric requirements for keeping warm aren't there in summer and the heat makes even the tropical cats torpid. We also do not feed the cats every day. It is a good idea to let them fast for at least one day a week. There are times during the summer that the cats won't eat for a couple of days even if the meat is available.
Finding enough meat for our kitties is a tough job. We depend on donations from local organizations for most of their food. We're always on the lookout for new sources of food. That's the way we found out that the cats won't eat hotdogs, but the bears will. (Arkansas Game and Fish knows we won't say no to an abandoned bear cub. We care for them until they are old enough, then Game and Fish releases them in the back country.) And raccoons (kept for people to see and admire) too. When they got bored with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches provided by the troop for their outing, a bunch of Boy Scouts discovered that bears are really omnivores. Huck, our bear of the hour, ate about 25 of them, and was begging for more when they ran out.
Neither lions nor tigers like to share. Individual animals stake out their portions and prepare to guard it from all comers, including us. Their behavior during feeding is quite different. Lions will roar to establish dominance and occasionally cuff each other. We have to know who is at the top of the pecking order and feed from top to bottom. If a mistake is made, it can be very noisy for a while as the lions work it out.
Tigers will claim their portion of meat, but some will move from one to another. We think that it's checking to see if their litter mate got more or better chow than they did. They can be quite hostile about eating. While I was training Bianca, a Siberian cub, I walked by her enclosure right after feeding time holding her training leash. She put her ears down and hissed at me. No mistake. I would not have a student until she finished eating.
A couple of lion prides got together overnight by pushing out one of the panels in the fence between their enclosures. We had rebuilt the bear compound (we get the occasional bear from Arkansas Game and Fish, but all the current crop had been released) to handle lions. That consisted of strengthening the fence and putting jump guards across the top of the fencing.
The more difficult (and funny if you were just watching) part came next. We had a dominant lion and four lionesses, one of whom had the leonine equivalent of PMS and all of which weighed upwards of six hundred pounds, to convince to move next door, then next door again.
Our kitty roundup began with Paul making a hole in the fence between the compounds big enough for the lions to pass through easily. Then we began to move cats... Or try to.
The three males who belonged in the compound lounged at the front, watching as we moved up to our four truants. They just didn't understand. Arthur, the male, paced around the house while two of the females, Cody and Cheyenne, raced up and down the wrong side of the enclosure. Using a piece of cattle panel as a come-along, we managed to get Arthur close to the opening. He raced past the panel and lay down. All three girls were thoroughly stirred up by this time. Cassie was snarling.
We figured that maybe it would be easier if the opening was close to the corner of the enclosure. While Steve wired the old opening shut, Paul cut a new one. As soon as we approached Arthur, he got up and paced out, his dignity waving over his head like his tail. Cody raced after him and after just a little persuasion, Cheyenne dove through the new opening.
Meanwhile, Cassie had taken refuge in the house and would not come out. Steve suggested that one of us go in and chase her out. That received the silent scorn it deserved. We tried beating on the walls and roof of the house... Nothing. Then Ailene got Paul's pry-bar from the demolition site (we are moving Safaripark to larger quarters and tearing down all buildings and enclosures while we build new ones) and we started prying at the corner of the house, hoping to get her out. Of course, as soon as we had one board partially loose, Cassie ran out of the house. She was truly upset and, trust me on this, you don't want to run afoul of 500 pounds of upset lion. Remember, it is the females who do the hunting.
A little coaxing managed to get her to the opening. When she saw the others of her pride lying there, she joined them. But not before letting us know in no uncertain terms that she was not happy.
The opening was wired shut and we began the process all over again. This time, the cats understood what we wanted. Arthur, Cody, and Cheyenne just walked to the opening and went into their new home. The enclosure was overgrown with high grass and some bushes. They picked a clear spot and lay down. Cassie was still very angry. We got out the Big Gun (a shovel) and banged it on the ground. The cats have been disciplined with a 'bite stick' (a fourteen-inch piece of ¼-inch diameter plastic pipe) since they began training. When they get older, it is usually sufficient to show them a bite stick, but occasionally one must threaten with a shovel. We usually use those for cleaning up cat feces and they understand the symbolism. Cassie snarled again to let us know that we were definitely on her bad list for the day and entered her proper enclosure. She lay panting from excitement and unease for almost the half hour it took to seal the now empty middle compound.
By the way, the bite stick really is used for bites. It isn't unusual for a lion or tiger to grab something you want to get away from him, something like a hand or pant leg. If coaxing won't do the trick, the bite stick is inserted into the corner of kitty's mouth and used to force their jaws open. When they're cubs, we can do it with our fingers at the jaw hinge like you do with a dog, but by the time they reach a couple of hundred pounds, some mechanical advantage is necessary.
Some Final Notes
As much as I love those tigers, I would not care to have one as a permanent guest in my home. First, a full-grown male Siberian can weigh up a thousand pounds and be thirteen or fourteen feet from nose to tail tip. Imagine the toll on the furniture.
Second, there is the not-so-funny oke about where does a thousand pound tiger shit? Anywhere it wants. The big cats do not understand about litter boxes.
There is also the prospective food bill. And the fact that a quarter to a half ton of kitty cat moving at 20 miles per hour can hurt you without meaning to. Most of us volunteers have been knocked down, some have even had joints sprained or dislocated by one of our charges wanting to go somewhere quickly and just brushing against us in the process.
Finally, these cats are wild animals. As much as we love them, we understand that if triggered by some action of ours, an outside event, or an instinct of theirs, they can and will hurt us. While we delight in taking cubs home for a night or two, we do so with the knowledge that we'll all be happier if the arrangements stay the way they are at Safaripark.
We have rescued several big cats, lions, or cougars whose owners didn't understand these things. There are refuges full of wild animals whose past owners thought it would be neat to own a (you name it).
In spite of several corporate donors, we are always scrambling for money for food, for building materials and for all of the other things we need to keep our cats comfortable and safe.
Ever since starting to work with the big kitties, it has been my ambition to get them and fans together. This past October, it finally happened. We took some cubs to St. Louis to participate in Archon. In fact, we were the con charity.
One last thing -- the government of Tanzania has contacted Safaripark and asked for twenty lions. The plan is to release them into the national park under the care of the rangers there. I think they will make sure the lions can hunt, and will feed them if they can't learn. The goal of a breeding/conservation park is to preserve the species, assure a large enough gene pool for eventual survival, and hopefully to release our charges back to the wild. We are all delighted that this has happened so soon.
But that can't be done with tigers. At present, just a tiger skin is worth more than the average Asian farmer makes in a whole lifetime. Tiger parts are in demand for traditional Chinese remedies. In spite of international treaties against the trade in endangered species, poachers take a horrid toll every year. Until man learns to live as neighbors to the large predators, we'll be responsible for their preservation.
There is hope. Costa Rica has made a business of 'eco-tourism'. Instead of destroying the jungle around them, many villages are making excellent livings for themselves by caring for their forests and leading tours to visit the wildlife in its natural habitat. Several other countries are trying similar experiments.
If sufficient pressure is put on the governments responsible for assuring their habitats and if neighboring populations realize the possibility of making a good living by showing rather than exploiting their forests and jungles, the pressure on the cats can be relieved. A place can be made again for these wonderful animals.
Title illustration by Julia Morgan-Scott