One of my favorite places to visit in Greensboro is the Natural Science Center. So on Sunday Chad and I headed out there to catch Sea Monsters in 3D at the NSC’s OmniSphere Theatre and to watch the tiger feeding.
The tiger feeding was first. When we got there, Kisa, the female, was napping on top of the tall rock structure in the covered area of the tiger enclosure, and her brother, Axel, was pacing back and forth along the fence. Sometimes as Axel passed one of the two glass-walled viewing areas, he’d stop and look at someone inside, or rub his head against the glass. He did that to the fence once, too, right in front of where I was standing.
As soon as they heard their keepers’ vehicle coming up the path, though, Kisa bolted upright and scurried down the rock wall. Axel stopped wandering and bee-lined for a spot at the front of the enclosure, Kisa right on his heels. Like a house cat who hears a can opener, these tigers knew it was time to be fed!
We’ve seen the keepers at NSC feed the gibbons before — they put food, fruit, and treats in empty cereal or popsicle boxes, then lean them against the fence around the enclosure so the gibbons have to work to get the tasty bits — but I wasn’t sure how they would handle the tiger feeding. Obviously they couldn’t go inside the fence with the tigers to offer them a steak, so, what? Fling hunks of meat over the top?
It’s actually much more clever than that and, like with the gibbons, is designed to stimulate them intellectually. The keeper takes ground up meat — as the keeper on the video explains, all parts of an animal ground up — and forms it as a ball at the end of a long, plastic tube. Then she sticks the meat ball through the fence, and the tigers eat it. The keeper goes to different spots along the fence, and even offers some of the meat higher so the tiger has to reach up to get it. Chad and I were about ten feet from the tigers — on the other side of a second fence that visitors aren’t allowed to cross for safety reasons — and as cool as it is to see the tigers do that on the video, it’s even more impressive in person.
One keeper fed the tigers while a second keeper told us a bit about them and answered questions. For example, I’ve always felt bad for the tigers because they pace along the fence. I thought they were bored. Turns out, they aren’t pacing. They’re trying to be close to people. Kisa and Axel were bottle-feeders. Their mother was rescued from someone in Ohio who wasn’t taking proper care of her or the other big cats he had. She gave birth to Kisa and Axel after arriving at a big cat rescue in Mebane, NC, but was too sickly to nurse them. The people at the rescue hand-raised Kisa and Axel until they were too big to be safe with people. Not that they would purposely hurt anyone, as the keeper explained. Just that as much as it hurts for a house cat to scratch you while playing, it’s much worse when the cat is a 400-pound tiger. But as a result of being bottle-feeders, Kisa and Axel want to be close to people, which is why they spend so much time walking along the fence. Because that’s where the people are. 🙂
What’s really interesting, for me at least, is that Kisa and Axel’s mother was rescued in Ohio six years ago. Chad and I were living in Ohio at the time, and I remember the news reports about tigers being seized from a private owner — and the pictures of the property. My heart broke when I saw them. But, although Kisa and Axel’s mother has since passed away, it’s heartwarming to know that she and her cubs got a second chance, and kind of exciting that it was here, where I now live.
Around the 3:30 mark on this video, you’ll see what looks like a fight break out between Kisa and Axel. Yes, I jumped. Everyone did. It was more than a little startling. But the keeper explained that they were just playing, much like house cats wrestle and play fight with each other. And, sure enough, a couple minutes later Kisa and Axel were laying down next to each other, not a growl to be heard.
In fact, when one of the keepers tried to get Kisa to “stalk” her along the fence — a type of play they do with Kisa so she’ll go inside easier at night, and without which she dawdles like a dog because she wants to stay out and play — Kisa and Axel completely ignored her. They were happy to stretch out next to each other in the mud and sun, occasionally licking the fence where a meat ball had been shoved through.
We also learned that Kisa paints. The keepers put non-toxic, washable kids’ paint on the floor inside a room and let Kisa walk and lay down in it. Apparently she likes the cool, slippery feel of the paint. Then the keepers let Kisa into a second room that has paper spread all over the floor. As she walks across the paper, lays down and rolls around, she creates artwork that the NSC later auctions to raise money to buy toys for the tigers.
Axel doesn’t like to paint, so they don’t make him. And if Kisa ever decides she’s done being an ar-teest, they won’t force her to continue.
All said and told, the feeding and talk took about 20 minutes, so Chad and I had plenty of time to walk around the Natural Science Center before the OmniSphere showing of Sea Monsters in 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure. But this post has already gotten much longer than I intended, so I’ll wait to tell you about that another time.
Oh, and obviously what the tigers ate during the feeding wasn’t all they get each day. The keepers feed them the bulk of their food inside in the evening. This feeding is just something the NSC does to keep the tigers intellectually stimulated. So don’t worry! These guys get plenty to eat and are actually at optimum weight for tigers of their breed and age.