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Tony Tigers : Renovated Exhibit Is Showcase for Zoo's Newest Inhabitants


GRIFFITH PARK — The heat of a recent summer afternoon had left the Los Angeles Zoo with a certain stillness amid the chatter and clatter of human visitors.

The antelope lay at rest in the shade. The orangutans remained hidden amid the rocks of their exhibit.

Up the hill and around a bend, people lined the railing above the new tiger exhibit, Tiger Falls, gazing at the zoo's three newest inhabitants--Shankarra, Indira and Rani--as they rested in the shade along a back wall. Watching along with the visitors, Birdie Foster, the tigers' keeper, rattled the hefty key ring on her belt.

"The cats get used to the sound of the keeper's keys," she explained.

The presence of a keeper often means it is mealtime, and animals used to the zoo's routine will look for the keeper when they hear the keys. But the three female cats had been in their new home, and under Foster's care, for only about a week, after a required 30-day quarantine for all new animals to prevent the introduction of diseases that might harm other creatures. They did not respond to the noise.

"It's going to take a couple weeks," said Foster, 55, who stands a little over 5 feet tall. Her size, she says, is no problem when it comes to caring for several big cats at the zoo, a job she has had for 12 years.

Shankarra, Indira and Rani, believed to be Bengal tigers, are on temporary loan from the Wildlife Waystation in Tujunga, as were their predecessors in the old exhibit, Morgan and Shalimar, who were returned to the waystation last spring when the Tiger Falls renovation began. They were not reintroduced because they did not get along, officials said.

Renovation of the tiger exhibit, which cost the zoo about $275,000, according to Foster, added a waterfall and two pools to the 200-by-125-foot outside grassy area. Also new is a viewing window level with the exhibit floor to enable visitors to look at the three female tigers straight on, in addition to watching them from the railing above.

The exhibit used to be just a grassy area with some trees. Now, with continuous fresh water from the waterfall, the two pools are just right for drinking or swimming, which tigers love to do.

The renovation is part of the zoo's larger plan to breed the critically endangered Sumatran tiger. Curator of mammals Michael Dee said he first approached the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which operates a computerized breeding program under the auspices of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, in November, 1992. Dee said he indicated that the Los Angeles Zoo, an association member, wanted to participate in a tiger breeding program. The SSP recommended Sumatran tigers.

"One of the reasons that (the SSP) came up with Sumatran tigers is that we have a mild climate (as does Sumatra)," Dee said. "It would be silly to put Sumatran tigers in Minnesota. I don't visualize Sumatran tigers in the snow. I visualize Siberian tigers."

Because of a variety of factors--including how many Sumatran cubs would be born from the most recent matings, what sex they would be and the weather conditions when it came time to ship the weaned cubs--Dee found that the earliest the zoo could expect Sumatran tigers would be the spring of 1994. Several zoos around the country are participating in the breeding program, but Dee said he has no way of knowing which two will provide a cub each, or when.

To ensure that there would be tigers in the renovated exhibit when it opened earlier this month, Dee contacted Martine Collette, who runs the waystation, and a loan of the three females was arranged. According to Collette, detailed records of the female tigers' genetic backgrounds were lost during a seven-month period when the World Society for Protection of Animals was trying to place the animals left homeless by closure of a wildlife park in New Zealand.

"It was not a direct, zoo-to-zoo transaction," Collette said.

To the casual observer, the three, 300-pound cats look identical, Foster said. They are sisters, about 10 years old. Each has its own unique pattern of markings, such as the large brown spot on Indira's nose.

Foster said they eat about 5 pounds of a medically prepared meat diet daily and get a bone to chew every Sunday. She feeds them at night. In fact, that is how she gets the cats into their night cages.

Shankarra, the "boss cat," is usually first in line. She goes down to her quarters at the end of the row, where her food is set out.

"She likes to eat," Foster said. "She's pretty confident. She knows that's dinner and she's going for it."

With Shankarra eating, Foster closes that cage, then sets out food for Indira, and then Rani--assuming Rani comes in.

"Rani is still on that wall," Foster said, adding that being patient is a large part of her job. The timid Rani has insisted on staying out overnight in the exhibit at least twice since her arrival. Foster lets them out in the mornings before the zoo opens at 10 a.m.

Foster said she spends a large part of her day just watching her various charges, which includes snow leopards, jaguars, a langur monkey and a bat-eared fox. After giving a tour of her area and feeding the monkey, she returned to the tigers' observation window and shook her keys one more time.

Napping in the middle of the exhibit, Shankarra twitched her ears. When the animal keeper shook the keys again, the big cat looked around.

Foster smiled, pleased with the response.

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