Friday, December 28, 2007

Old Tigers Never Fade

Several years ago I had a close encounter with a retired tiger. We were spending a family weekend in Las Vegas after a week touring the Grand Canyon, Zion, Brice and Monument Valley. It was August and it was hot. If anyone tells you dry heat is bearable, their experience with dry heat consists solely of moving between air conditioned casinos in an air conditioned cab. We had tickets to tour Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden. This looked like a short easy walk compared to our recent canyon hikes. We would stretch our legs and see the sights. Each casino on the strip has its own, very large block. A hike to a destination just four casinos away required two stops to refill our canteens, but we arrived -ready for a rest.

The Secret Garden was a cool, green oasis. We strolled with audio players that provided a self guided tour. After ten minutes I spotted an inviting bench, next to an exhausted looking Siberian White Tiger, with only a wire fence between us. This particular animal had a grey snout and pot belly. But for the sign, I would have thought the white coat was due to age, not breed. The inbred white tigers are known for a mean streak, but this cat looked like it was just barely able to stay awake.

I listened to the full audio lecture on the Siberian White Tigers, but I didn't feel like moving yet so I played one of the extra features - a short demonstration of the language Siegfried used to communicate with the Tigers. This was a series of clicking noises with a guttural background, something like a Kalahari bushman trying to get another round of Becks in a German beer hall. I looked at the sleepy old cat through the fence and thought - why not? Two seconds into my best imitation of Siegfried's secret calming noise, the aging feline snarled, then jumped against the fence before I had time to blink my eyes. The fence held as I jumped back, suddenly communicating in Anglo Saxon instead of Siegfried's secret tiger language.

The moral may be don't take lessons in Tiger language from a guy who speaks English with an accent after twenty years in Vegas. For anyone visiting a zoo that relies on natural barriers and the predictability of the tigers' behavior to protect the visitors, the odds are with you, but predicting the tiger may not be an exact science.

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