The Cougar Mountain Zoo will recognize the birthdays of two of its Bengal tigers during its Earth Day celebration April 18.
The tigers, Taj and Almos, turn 8 this month.
The pair were born three weeks apart in captivity in a Florida tiger preserve.
They were relocated to the Cougar Mountain Zoo in 2007 once they were old enough to be separated from their mothers. Taj, a rare Golden Bengal, was 7 weeks old and Almos, a Royal White, was 4 weeks.
“They’ve been inseparable since they were cubs,” zoo spokesperson Cari McKinstry said. “They’re best friends and they’re like brothers.”
Taj, despite growing up to be smaller than Almos (though “small,” in a tiger’s case, could be 300 pounds) has maintained a big brotherly dominance in their relationship thanks to their relatively undisturbed seclusion. Zoo Education Coordinator Amanda Vandel describes him as having a royal attitude.
“He’s rare and he knows it,” she said with a laugh.
The two were the first residents of Tiger Encounter, a cozy and caged habitat that allows zoo staff to train and care for the animals, as well as take guests on “tiger tunnel” tours and observe the animals more closely from a glass enclosure. Construction on Tiger Falls — a naturalistic habitat for adolescent and adult tigers — was already underway, promising Taj and Almos an open playground as soon as they grew large enough to use it.
Taj and Almos when they were cubs. Photo courtesy of Cougar Mountain Zoo.
The zoo has since acquired two more Bengals: Vitez and Bagheera, both now 6. The younger and elder pairs are kept separated, rotating between the two habitats.
Eight’s an interesting number for the Bengal. In the wild an 8-year-old tiger would be nearing the end of his life, able to expect — perhaps — two more years. In captivity that same tiger is only middle-aged, free from competition for resources and the threat of poachers.
“Life in the wild is hard,” McKinstry said. “So they might not live all that long out there. But here, we provide their food, their water, shelter, health care, dental care, so they live quite a bit longer.”
On a recent tiger tunnel tour given to a Snoqualmie woman and her visiting grandsons from Wisconsin, McKinstry and Vandel went through the daily life and pleasures of Taj and Almos. First, they demonstrated husbandry training and the process of giving treats to reinforce obedient behaviors that come unnaturally but allow the animals to receive care. They pointed out “chuffing,” a sort of controlled sneezing sound the tigers give off to show affection. Vandel joked about the tigers’ relationship with the cougars in the neighboring exhibit.
“They do sometimes get into these fake turf wars through the gates,” she said. “They can see each other through the opening and they’ll pace back and forth to protect their territory even though they’re separated.”
Though the Cougar Mountain tigers live a comfortable life, they’re thought of as ambassadors for conservation and the plight of tigers in the wild.
That’s because the species has dwindled to the lowest depths of endangerment, with three of its nine subspecies already extinct. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates current populations could be as low as 3,200 tigers — or roughly one-tenth of the population of Issaquah.
“They’ve been hunted to near extinction over the past 100 years,” McKinstry said. “There used to be enough tigers to fill every single seat of CenturyLink (Field). Now, there’s maybe enough to fill one section. Tigers have seen a 97 percent reduction of their population in just a century.”
However, she added that Bengal tigers in particular have seen some growth over the past four years. Vandel noted that India had declared the Bengal its national animal and had recently thrown renewed energy into the Project Tiger initiative originally launched in 1973.
“It’s much like how the bald eagle received national recognition here and was able to recover with the renewed attention of people,” Vandel said.
The theme of the Cougar Mountain Zoo’s Earth Day celebration is “Party for the Planet.” The event will be visited by the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society and Mountains-To-Sound Greenway, with desserts from Nothing Bundt Cakes and Borracchini’s Bakery.
Taj’s and Almos’ birthday celebration will take place at 1 p.m., when they’ll receive gift boxes of meat.
“Once they are given to the tigers, they will tear them apart,” McKinstry said.