Off The Press

November 17, 2009

By Kathleen R. Merrill

Kathleen R. Merrill Press editor

Kathleen R. Merrill Press editor

Last week, I decided to drop by Cougar Mountain Zoo to check on Taj and Almos, the elder of our local, rare Bengal tigers. I’ve seen them grow up, like many of you have done.

I knew they were moving into their new, larger, adult habitat at some point. (Taj had been in there for nearly three weeks. Almos, a little shyer about the move, maybe because he heard people talk about the horrors of packing and moving, had entered the enclosure only three days before.)The over an acre setting is gorgeous, well-designed and yet primitive at the same time. It’s all natural, rock, rain-fed waterfalls and grasses, and includes toys, like a 50-pound ball that Almos pounced on and slammed into the fence creating a terrific crashing sound.

“If you’re a tiger, it’s ideal,” said Robyn Barfoot, general curator of the zoo.

There’s a public part where people can watch these guys from several excellent vantage points, either behind glass or special fencing.

But there’s also a private part, where Taj kept wandering, appearing to be stalking something that kept catching his eye. It’s important for the big cats to have some privacy.

And these are big cats now. Almos, one of about 400 royal white Bengal tigers in the world, weighed in at 374 last week, while Taj, one of only 102 golden Bengal tigers in the world, weighed in at 394.

There’s a pump house, locked to the public, that runs big and small waterfalls and the pond. The rushing of the water almost makes you feel you’re in the wild and if you close your eyes for a moment when Taj is “talking,” you almost feel like you’re in the jungle with the big cats.

The water feature was important to the cats and zoo officials. The boys have loved to be in water since their days in small- and mid-sized kiddie pools.

“They love the water, they love to swim, and this way, the public can view them safely while they’re lounging and swimming,” Barfoot said.

The hilltop home gives them a great view of the Cascades, the highlands, the plateau and Lake Sammamish. You can sense that they think all that land is theirs as they stalk around the enclosure.

“This makes them feel more like they’re in the wild,” Barfoot said.

Zoo officials wanted to keep the enclosure predator friendly, part of the reason for that view, which also helps the cats not really seem to notice the fences much when they’re stalking around.

Because of this set-up, no running is allowed, and a docent is present at all times to enforce good behavior, so children won’t antagonize the cats, and answer questions from the public. And there are tons of them.

“How much does he eat?”

“What does he weigh?”

“What kind of tigers are they?”

“Where do they sleep?”

Barfoot has been trying to thank all of the donors and members of the zoo.

“We couldn’t expand or build habitats, or acquire animals, without donations,” she said.

The zoo could always use more donations. Landscaping still needs to be done, including adding tall grasses for the big cats to stalk through.

You can donate any amount, even putting change in boxes around the zoo. But a really sweet deal in donating is the $98 brick. (I’m getting ready to order mine.) Donate that amount and ask for a brick. You get one on the walkway to the habitat with the engraving (up to 30 letters) of your choice. (You can pay more and get more letters.)

Make your brick a memorial to a friend or loved one and do something good for these big guys while you’re at it. (Go to www.cougarmountainzoo.org, and then click on “Join Us,” and then click on “Engraved Paving Stone.”)

Then, come and sit with them for a while and watch how the regal animals live their lives. I guarantee you’ll come away from the experience filled with joy, awe and peace. And you just might get in touch with your inner tiger.

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