“Someone told me it’s all happening at the Zoo.  I do believe it.  I do believe it’s true.” Another visit to the Winnipeg Assiniboine Park Zoo.

Photo by the author.

Today I drive to the Winnipeg Assiniboine Park Zoo to visit the Amur (Siberian) Tigers, Samkha and Volgo.  En route some images of tigers parade through my mind: the EssoTiger, Frosted Flakes Tony the Tiger,  Tigger friend of Pooh, Rajah from the movie Aladdin, the scary Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and the fabulous menacing Richard Parker under the canvas in the boat in The Life of Pi.

And the  first stanza of William Blake’s 1794 “Tyger” marches through my head: Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night;/ What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tigers! A hundred years ago there were nine species of tigers in our world. Today, each with dwindling populations, there are five. Three species are extinct and a fourth, the South-China Tiger, probably only survives in captivity! The most populous, at 2000, is the Bengal Tiger.

There are only about 500 Amur (Siberian) Tigers in the wild. They live in the far east of Russia and pockets of China.  Some may exist in North Korea.  These two in the zoo obviously don’t know about their relatives.

Volga yawns dreamily on her platform perch ignoring all visitors.  Samkha gives no indication he even sees those staring in at him. He aggressively paces his territory, huge head swaying slightly matching his stride, and then he suddenly plunges into the pond for a quick dip. Rare cats indeed to enjoy swimming.

Samkha has eyes and ears well adapted for night hunting.  His stripes are unique to him. He hardly needs camouflage here, although his coat of soft under fur beneath the protective hair is useful in this Manitoba zoo habitat. In the wild he’d need his long canine teeth to capture prey and his back teeth to slice it up for ingestion.

His tongue is very raspy to strip hair or feathers. (Zoo provided information says his diet in the wild includes deer or boar, birds, fish or even frogs!).  His powerful long back legs enable jumps up to thirty feet. His short and strong front legs with large retractable claws are designed to bring down and clasp prey.

Neither Samkha or Volga have talked to me, but apparently they can with roars, moans, chuffing noises, growls, hisses, and snarls. No purring for these cats! Besides being useful for balance, the tail too is a communication tool!

These cats are covered with glands to mark their territory and to communicate to other tigers identity, sex, mating potential, and who knows what else. Today I’m happy to cede Samkha’s territory to him and stay on my side of the solid steel mesh.

Leaving the souvenir shop heading home with a small stuffed tiger under my arm, I think it ironic that these beautiful dangerous beasts, despite their ferocity and adaptations for hunting, are losing the battle to simply survive.

It’s shocking to realize that Samkha and Volga are an endangered species.  I wonder if their species too will be extinct in another fifty years and if we’ll merely have stuffed toys, pictures, and Blake’s poem to remember them by.

Frank Obrigewitsch, SJ, is pastor of St. Ignatius parish in Winnipeg.

  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 06:34h, 18 September Reply

    Interesting, informative and well written. Thanks!

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 09:30h, 18 September Reply

    Thank you Frank!

  • Michelle
    Posted at 14:22h, 18 September Reply

    I love to visit the tigers at the Assiniboine Zoo too! I wasn’t aware that we have lost so many species of tigers in only 100 years. So much of God’s creation has become extinct from human activities. It is so sad. I appreciate the people who work to ensure the survival of God’s creatures, all around the world.

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