FORT WAYNE — Don’t ever get between Indah and Bugara and something they want.
What they wanted Friday was the three birthday presents zookeepers placed in the Sumatran tigers’ enclosure, and to the delight of dozens of zoo visitors, the huge cats attacked the gifts with the gusto only a 200-pound predator can bring to the task.
Though they are twins, Indah and Bugara have different birthdays. Female Indah was born Aug. 15, and male Bugara was born several hours later on Aug.16. Because their mother did not properly care for them, the tigers were hand-reared by Cameron Park Zoo staff in Waco, Texas. The tigers, who turned 2 Thursday and Friday, came to Fort Wayne over the winter.
So while they’re not technically kittens any more, they’re still juveniles and full of energy – think 18-month-old Labrador retriever, with teeth and fangs. In addition, Indah and Bugara love to play with each other, stalking and chasing each other through their exhibit. And because they were hand-raised, they are curious about humans, especially children.
“They’re a lot more interested in people than some cats would be,” the zoo’s Cheryl Piropato said. “That allows that magical interaction to happen. ‘Whoa! Look at those teeth! Whoa! Look at those claws!’ ”
That curiosity led to more than one up-close-and-personal moments Friday, including one where Indah suddenly leaped up to the glass between her and a gallery packed with families holding cameras and cellphones, staring right into the face of Ian Shoppell, 3. The crowd squealed and gasped, but Shoppell stood frozen staring into Indah’s huge, mesmerizing eyes.
“Ian, you were almost a tiger snack today!” nanny Ruth White told the boy, who was still taking in the experience of looking into a face the size of his head and torso combined.
“She’ll do that. She likes toddlers,” tiger keeper Angie Selzer said, laughing. “She likes to pinpoint on a kid and just go for them.”
The visitors helping celebrate the tigers’ birthdays got a look at their magnificent power almost as soon as they were allowed back into the enclosure: Bugara easily leaped onto a 5-foot-high platform and pounced on the gift there, smashing it with a huge paw.
Both tigers batted the boxes wrapped in paw-print wrapping paper, ripping them open and sticking their heads inside, then chasing their sibling to get at the box that one was shredding, then stalking the third box, then getting chased away and starting the whole thing over.
So what was inside the gift boxes? Prime rib? T-bone steaks? Coney dogs?
Actually, it was crumpled-up Journal Gazette newspapers, scented with spices and perfumes. “They smell the perfume on people, and it’s very interesting to them,” Piropato said.
Hand-reared tigers are typically not good candidates for breeding, so Bugara has been neutered, which will allow the two to be exhibited together.
Sumatran tigers are the smallest of the six surviving tiger subspecies and are critically endangered on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which is their only wild home, because forests are being destroyed to build palm oil plantations. Three tiger subspecies have gone extinct in the last 80 years.