Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tiger Tails

Recently I was sitting on the couch with Cha-Cha, hoping to enjoy a rainy winter day by doing little except cross-stitching and coffee drinking. Cha-Cha was spinning through Netflix on the X-Box (because I am such a good mom!), and I got all excited about a Siberian Tiger documentary he skimmed over. I jumped at the chance to watch it when he offered to turn it on. Because drinking coffee, doing needlework, and not having to watch a SpongeBob episode I’ve already seen so many times I can sing along? Priceless!

See, I have a thing for cats. Not in a crazy-neighbor-lady-with-a-suspiciously-large-number-of-them way…well, not yet at least.
There was amazing footage of the tigers in the wild, including a funny part where a young cub is retrieved from its den to be tagged while its (already tagged) mother is away. All seven pounds of that tiger cub were furious and letting the researchers know it! Which was funny in an oh-my-if-he-were-just-a-few-months-older-he’d-rip-out-all-their-throats way. Don’t worry about Momma Tiger (who had been named Olga by the researchers, and why does my mind deem that little gem worthy of memory but where I put my glasses or keys isn’t considered important enough?) – she would never know about the cross-species intrusion because the researchers had thoughtfully coated their gloves in tiger poo before doing their work. Ah, the glamour of science!

What really caught my eye was when one of the researchers had to give breathing assistance to a large male tiger that didn’t react well to the sedative. And, you might ask, how does one do such a thing for a tiger? Apparently one first holds shut the tiger’s jaw, a jaw approximately the size of the researcher’s head. Then one cups one’s hand around the tiger’s nose, gently places one’s mouth around said nose, and blows into the nostrils. One does not truly appreciate the size of a tiger’s nostrils until one sees someone perform such an act. One does not truly appreciate the dedication of scientists until one sees someone perform such an act.
They gave the tiger a little shot of reviver and scurried through the tagging process double time to ensure they finished before he woke up completely. And when the camera man gets a shot of the tiger’s tail twitching and his eye roving about while the researchers work quickly around him? That’s the moment I would have run back to the Jeep, sobbing in fear. Of course these researchers were dropped in by helicopter so it would have been a very long run. Or a very short one, this being tiger territory. I mean really, I can’t even handle a bear.

And apropos of nothing except tigers, an anecdote:
When I moved with my then-boyfriend to Phoenix in the mid 90’s, there was an animal park north of Scottsdale that was dedicated to large cats. It was a decidedly un-fancy affair, but the animals all had large spaces and the staff was obviously deeply dedicated to helping not only the cats at the park (many of whom had been abandoned, abused, or injured) but also educating the visitors about the plight of large cats worldwide. A little internet research shows that the Out of Africa Wildlife Park has since moved further north and expanded. No doubt because their original space is now populated by McMansions and upscale strip malls.

When I visited the park in their salad days, they had a show area with a shallow pool surrounded by (very tall) chain link fencing. The “show” consisted of tigers encouraged to engage in natural behaviors by park employees (there is video as well as photos of the current Tiger Splash here). The announcer stressed that the employees were not trainers, and the tigers were not trained performers, pointing out that having multiple humans in with the tigers mitigated the danger of attack by continuously distracting the tiger. In a multilevel approach to mitigating that danger, one also hopes the tigers were also well fed.
In keeping with the aesthetic and budget, the seating for the watchers of this show was a set of old, metal bleachers like I remember sitting on at baseball games in my brother’s Little League years. The awesomeness of getting to sit just a few feet from a chain-link fence separating people from tigers created one tiny problem though. Much like the annoying tabby from down the street that insists on urinating in your flower bed, tigers have a strong urge to mark their territory. This urge will be heightened by the presence of perceived interlopers, i.e. a large group of humans (or possibly tasty treats in tiger eyes) on the other side of the fence. Unlike that neighborhood tabby though, tigers – both male and female – are capable of lifting their tails and shooting a prodigious stream of urine directly behind them at alarmingly high velocity*. This created a unique job opportunity at the park.

At every show there were two people standing next to the fence on either side of the bleachers. Each carried a large, round, trashcan lid. When a tiger would saunter over and pace along the fence (deciding who to order for lunch perhaps?), one of these people would follow it just along the short arc of the bleachers. If, while the tiger was at this section of fence, he or she turned to present us with a view of the secret, under-tail, tiger parts, the trashcan lid would be strategically placed against the fence sparing us all a tiger pee soak. Everyone in the audience did the requisite, “Ew, yuck!” after the announcer explained the trashcan lid jockeys’ job. Then my boyfriend turned to me and said, “You would volunteer for that job just to get closer to the tigers, wouldn’t you?”
Yes. Yes, I would.

* I was lucky (?) enough to witness this phenomenon at Tucson’s Reid Park zoo once. A few children were standing at the plexiglass window, very excited about the tiger being so close. The children, not as knowledgable about tiger territory marking as I am, were completely unprepared for the fire hose of pee that came shooting out of tiger’s butt. I almost peed my own pants laughing while the children screamed. Does that make me a bad person?