Trailing the Big Cats

For a walk on the wild side, follow the tracks of a tiger or look at a lion close up at the National Zoo

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On Sundays the tigers get oxtails, something like bones for dogs — except they're two feet long.

Both lions and tigers sleep most of the day — 20 hours in fact — and the rest of the time the big cats prowl their territory, marking the boundaries with scent. They do have large 30-pound balls to play with, and on a hot day Rokan (but not the lions) will bat one into the moat and swim after it.

"Great Cats" has been a long time aborning. Seidensticker told me the idea arose in the early '80s as conservationists realized just how endangered tigers were. The plan was to replace the fading posters and run-down graphics in the Lion/Tiger House (built in 1976) with materials that would better educate the public about tigers and other big cats.

"We thought we could do it by 1986, the building's tenth anniversary," says Seidensticker. "Boy, was I wrong; I had no idea how much effort it would take. It was not until the Save the Tiger Fund came along, backed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Exxon Corporation, that things began to take shape. "This is a zoo," he added, "and it should be fun, but we need to convey the educational message, too — serious information about the importance of saving the tiger in the wild."

Part of the tiger conservation program is breeding. Soy, the 5-year-old, or Kerinci, her mother, is to be bred with Rokan to produce, with luck, more Sumatran tigers. Kerinci's previous litters consisted of two cubs each. (Gestation is about 106 days, by the way.) On my way out I visited the lions, who live on the other side of the hill. I saw Thandi, a 263-pound lioness, 14 years old, stretched out on the grassy slope, dead to the world. Nearby, but paying no attention to her, sat the twin brothers, Tsavo and Tana, 10 years old on November 15. They each weigh around 485 pounds. Tsavo is supposed to have a shorter mane than Tana, and a scar on his nose, but to me they looked identical.

There they lounged, on the top terrace, side by side — I read that male lions are very companionable — with their front paws hanging over the grassy edge while they stared in perfect unison at all these people who were being exhibited to them on the other side of the moat.

I was going to whisper "Kitty, kitty, kitty!" but they would have been mortified.

By Michael Kernan


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