As I mentioned in my September 2019 post about Kemala, I had originally hoped to feature one of the “new” Amur tigers in my 2019 calendar, but they did not make it out on exhibit in time to meet my publishing deadline. It was close, though: the photo at left of Vasili was taken barely two weeks after the shot of Kemala on last year’s calendar. In my post from August 2017 I explained why there had been no Amur tigers at the Toronto Zoo for a few years (they had to make way for the five-year giant panda visit), and I shared the last shot I took of our previous Amur male, Vitali. The pandas departed for Calgary right after March Break in 2018, and a pair of Amur siblings arrived in town soon after that – Vasili from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, and Kira from Calgary Zoo, where the pair were born in 2012.
Vasili and his other littermate, Samkha, were transferred to Assiniboine in early 2014 once the cubs had reached about two years of age. A few months later, in September of that year, Vasili was involved in a tragic incident where a door between tiger enclosures had inadvertently been left open and a 19-year-old male named Baikul (not Vasili’s Dad although he had the same name) walked through and into the area where the two younger males were playing with each other. A fight ensued between Vasili and Baikul resulting in the death of the older tiger, a devastating loss for the Winnipeg Keepers. I’ve never confirmed this, but I suspect the ragged edges on Vasili’s ears were most likely a result of this encounter six years ago.
Vasili remained at Assiniboine with his brother until he and Kira – who had stayed in Calgary her whole life to that point – arrived in Toronto to populate the Amur tiger exhibit once again with the departure of the panda family. Ordinarily we might have expected to view them in late April after a 30-day quarantine; however, there had been a few modifications to the exhibit for the giant pandas which, although perfectly acceptable for the containment of small, docile bears, rendered some of the glass and mesh restraining features inadequate for the huge, powerful bodies of a pair of the biggest cats in the world. As a result, Vasili and Kira were confined to the house and their day rooms nearly a half-year while the necessary improvements were made to the exhibit construction. Volunteers and Staff members were able to view the two beautiful animals at lunchtime every day, but no Zoo guests were allowed access; as I had not yet returned to Volunteering, I was forced to wait until after Thanksgiving (October for those Americans reading this post) before I was able to finally catch a glimpse of them. As I mentioned previously, this came just a bit too late to get a shot of one of them into the 2019 calendar.
Vasili is an incredibly handsome tiger, there’s no doubt about that; however, I must admit it was his sister, Kira, who stole my heart immediately. The first couple of times I visited the Amurs I found her in the south exhibit, which is smaller than the north side but gives guests a chance to get much closer to the animal inside. (For those of you who still remember the exhibits from the panda years: the south exhibit is where Er Shun (and, later, her twins) was almost every day she spent in Toronto.) As you can see from the photo at right, Kira liked to get up close and personal with her fans as she walked past the large window, and that was very appealing to me, as you might imagine. It would have been enough to have been one of the myriad people she had ordinary encounters with; however, the way things turned out was infinitely better for my soul.
I visited the pair on Hallowe’en of 2019, along with my friend Lynda. Kids and adults alike had gone by Kira all day long wearing odd costumes and carrying various components of those costumes in their hands. Kira, as evidenced by this last photo I took of her that day, was completely unfazed by all the odd objects around her… until, that is, it began to rain a little bit. I had brought a golf umbrella with me – I needed to extra circumference to protect my camera while I was taking pictures – and I decided to open it near the fence at the west end of her exhibit. Kira, who the instant before I opened the umbrella was at the far end with her back to me, immediately spun around and trotted, swiftly and silently, directly at me, with her ears pinned back to her head. With a snarl, she took one pounce into and out of the nearby pool and leapt up against the screen, standing fully extended on her hind legs, hissing at us, and spraying us with mud from the leap. For some reason I’ve never been able to work out, she hated that umbrella and, once we had worked out what was upsetting her, I immediately shut it again.
Kira backed down from the fence but did not prick her ears up; instead, she stalked through the door into her day room, snarling to herself. I then made a quick decision which, to my mind, made all the difference to the special relationship we had going forward. I followed her inside to the viewing area where I caught her attention again. I showed her the umbrella and made a motion as if to re-open it; as expected, she came quickly to the window and stood up again, snarly fiercely. I then firmly closed the offending object, dropped it to the floor out of her view, rubbed my hands together, and showed them to her, empty. She looked very carefully at my hands, and then at me, and eventually she calmed down, raised her ears, and headed back outside. I returned to where I had been standing, umbrella-free, and stayed there in her sight until the rain became a little too heavy to handle. The next several times I visited her she would look at me, then immediately search my hands, clearly looking for the scary brolly. She never saw it again and, eventually, she stopped worrying about it. However, I remain convinced that she became acutely aware of me that day and I continued to have an impression on her for the rest of the time she was in Toronto.
Here’s a shot of her back outside in the rain, after we had worked out our differences:
And after that we were really close friends who would greet each other every time we met:
And, of course, there’s this amazing photo, taken by my friend Lynn:
Because Vasili and Kira are brother and sister, we all knew they wouldn’t remain in Toronto together for a very long time. Eventually it was our turn to re-enter the breeding program, so one of them had to be swapped out with a tiger who was not a blood relation. I realize this month’s featured animal is Vasili and I really do love him, but the truth of the matter is I really wanted him to leave and Kira to stay, because our attachment to each other was very strong. For example: on August 15 of last year the Zoo held a 45th anniversary party for Staff and Volunteers that was a real blast. Late in the event, Heather (Australasia Supervisor at the time) opened up the kangaroo walkthrough for any of us who wished to head over there. Of course Sarah and I jumped at the chance, and on the way we passed by the Amurs’ south exhibit. As luck would have it, Kira was outside and walking in front of the window, where several Staff and Volunteers were clustered watching her and talking to her. I paused well back from the crowd for a moment, and Kira suddenly noticed me above the heads of all the other people she would also have been acquainted with. She stood up on her hind legs and fixed me with her gaze. Rather than pawing at the window as she often did, she stood there a moment, then we exchanged three or four slow blinks with each other. She then returned to all fours and began to walk around again, while I managed to regain my composure. I have to tell you, it was tough; Kira found me in a crowd of people she knew, singled me out, and said hello. It really doesn’t get a lot better than that in terms of a connection with an animal.
Alas, the decision had likely already been made by that point, although I was not made aware of it until the fall. Kira was the one to be exchanged with another female tiger, one much older but with a successful breeding pedigree. And so it was that Kira departed for Granby Zoo in Quebec on December 11, and Mazyria (who had arrived in Toronto several weeks earlier) moved into the Amur house the following weekend. Kira left quite a void in my heart and, unfairly or not, a very high bar for Mazy to aspire to. I was afraid I wouldn’t give her a sporting chance to capture my heart, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. Mazy is a lovely, sociable, gorgeous tiger and, while I doubt we’ll reach the intensity of friendship I achieved with Kira, she has certainly displayed real affection toward me on many occasions. I recently had a chance to work a Volunteer shift at the Amur exhibit, pointing out where the tigers were to passing cars on the Scenic Safari, and interacting with visitors on foot at the enclosure. Mazy was again in the southern area, and even though it was a terrifically hot day – as has been the case virtually all of July here in Toronto – she spent virtually my entire three-hour shift outside, either in the pool, lying in the shade, or walking past the window to the delight of the people who had come to see her. Granby told us that she really did love the outdoors more than being inside, but the searing heat and humidity of this summer has kept her inside much of the time, especially in the late morning and early afternoon; her choosing to remain close to me until nearly 1:00 meant a great deal to me, as it obviously had a lot to do with her enjoying the company. It didn’t take long for me to prove this theory, either.
A few days after my shift, I passed by the Amurs on my way to the exit. There was no sign of any tiger on the north exhibit, but when I entered the viewing area for the day rooms, there was no sign of any tiger inside, either, and Vasili was lounging in the south area. So I went back outside and scanned the exhibit for Mazy. It took quite a while to find her, because she was lying on her side in the cool of the valley that ended right beneath the viewing area, in a place where I had to press my face against the glass and look straight down to see her. Note her reflection in the photo here; the glass extends all the way down to the ground beside where she was lying. With great effort and no small amount of contorting myself, I managed to hold my camera out over the glass (with the strap wound tightly around my wrist, of course) and grab a shot of her, using the tilt-out viewer to locate her in the frame. (She had been there once before; that photo was actually a little bit more difficult as the sun that day was right behind me and glaring off the viewer, while this particular evening she was much easier to see.)
And then, once I had taken a couple more shots just to be sure, I called out to her, aiming my voice down the glass on the inside to where she was lying, not really expecting her to even hear me, let alone rouse herself from her sleep. But hear me she did, and responded thusly:
I’d have to say she and I are getting along just fine and for that, I am very grateful. Luckily, she also got along just fine with Vasili when they were introduced in January and February this year! They showed a great deal of interest in each other and Mazy made all the right moves. There were several breeding sessions that did not result in any cubs this time, but we all have our fingers tightly crossed for next winter. Here is a short video of Vasili and Mazy just before they were put together for the first time (they had been “singing” to each other for quite a while at this point).
Maybe in a couple of years I’ll have some tiny, adorable tiger cubs to feature for one of the months. It’s been quite a while since there were any of those born in Toronto; meanwhile, we’re in the middle of a pretty solid Baby Boom right now. Maybe it has something to do with how quiet (and probably boring) things were for 15 weeks this spring, although obviously that’s not any explanation for Amani, the baby Masai giraffe who was born after a 15-month gestation! Anyway, here is a photo of a ridiculously muscular Vasili hanging onto some meat enrichment at his first carnivore feed on Remembrance Day of 2018. He looks like a body-builder who’s had tiger stripes painted onto his arm. Good grief. Anyway, when I tell you, again, that Amur tigers are the biggest cats in the world, have a look at that picture for proof. Incidentally, they used to be called “Siberian” tigers but have been hunted to relative extinction in Siberia, and their name has been changed to reflect that. They’re holding onto their title as biggest cats by a thread, because when an animal is hunted it’s not generally the smaller ones that are sought out. Many of the biggest Siberians were removed prematurely from the gene pool and that’s had quite an effect over time. Hopefully something as jarring as a name change, and the accompanying responsibility for their survival this places on the Chinese government, will help save this glorious cat from extinction. I cannot imagine for a second a world without tigers, so I certainly hope something works.
I’m going to leave off for now, and brighten the mood up a bit with a mosaic of shots of all three Amurs: Vasili, Kira, and Mazy, along with a short video of Kira and I exchanging greetings. Next month? Oh. My. Goodness. You’re in for a treat no matter what else happens… but with any luck, the treat will be even bigger than even I thought it would be. See you in September, and thanks for reading!