by Karen Veazey
In 2012, I visited a large cat rescue where I participated in “cub interaction time,” a controversial but effective method of fundraising. For a small donation, you play with a tiger cub.
I entered the playpen, a pale green cement and cinderblock room with one glass observation wall and a back wall covered in jungle wallpaper. As I waited, I straightened the packing blankets scattered across the floor. I was giddy with excitement: it was my birthday; I’m dedicated to animal rescue; I love cats. The trainer carried in a forty-pound, four-month-old, male tiger cub named Chupa and set him on the floor next to me. I dropped to my knees to pet him. He leapt into my arms, bowled me over, and I fell in love.
For the next half hour, I served as a chew toy, experiencing a kind of power and muscular brawn completely foreign to me. Even from a form so small, so compact, every playful bite left bruises to the bone, and his squirming body was too much to hold. He was stronger than any large-breed dog I’d wrestled. It put me in awe of nature in a way the Grand Canyon never has. It was the first time I truly respected the tiger.
When I read Katherine Maurer’s poem “At the Zoo” my heart went out to the solitary kitty, watching children come and go day after day. I was startled by the simplicity with which Maurer’s poem illustrates the complex dignity of large cats.
and suited to loneliness, to a sky that could be over
any continent, to falling into half-sleep
and feeling the ground slip.
Her words moved me to Google Amur leopard, and I discovered the gorgeous, classic spotted leopard, sinewy and sleek. With a thicker, warmer coat than its African cousins, it survives in the cold mountain terrain of northern China and southern Russia, and it is critically endangered; there are fewer than forty in the wild1.
In the poem Maurer describes a visit to the large-cat exhibit at the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. I learned from Zoo Superintendent Jay Tetzloff that the leopard she saw is named Boris; he now lives at the Oregon Zoo.
Because Katherine Maurer’s poem so well captures the dichotomy of cats—which can move from sleep to play to gravitas, always leaving you one step behind—I wanted to know more. I asked Maurer about her moment with Boris and what overriding impression got beneath her skin that day.
It was a warm summer weekend at the zoo and there were a lot of families with kids there. I was feeling a little annoyed by overhearing comments I thought were dumb or not encouraging to kids’ scientific curiosity. After a while (and reading about the desperate conservation status of this cat in particular), it all started to seem very crass to me—that humans were so effectively crowding this animal out of existence and here we are rubbing our reproductive success in its face…Big cats sleep a lot, especially during the day, so they’re one of those animals that seems pretty predictably underwhelming at zoos—here’s this majestic animal that makes its way into all the storybooks and it’s invariably barely visible and sleeping in a corner when people go to see it. Maybe you get a yawn. I guess I was just drawn in by the leopard’s state of consciousness amid all the noise and ignorance more than a particular physical feature. I have some interest in meditation, and I’ve always thought of the meditative state as being something like what animal consciousness must be like: the aim is not to think of the future or the past.
Scientists and researchers are working hard to reverse the damage done by human factors like poaching and land development. In a diminishing population, inbreeding also creates genetic weaknesses that can lead to early death.
The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance is one group overseeing a zoological breeding and reintroduction program, hoping to increase the population to eighty cats by 2035. Their website notes, “The Amur leopard is probably the only large cat for which a reintroduction program using zoo stock is considered a necessary conservation action”2. Such breeding is handled carefully to build increasingly strong family lines—a kind of reverse natural selection.
Through zoos and rescues, we are fortunate to have close encounters with these rare and powerful examples of nature, which even individually are capable of impressing upon us how small we really are–so small that in the face of these solitary animals we have to lock them behind strong bars and can only then (and even barely) handle them when they are innocent cubs.
1. “PantheraPardus Ssp. Orientalis.” (Amur Leopard). Web. 27 Jan. 2015.
2. “Amur Leopard Reintroduction | ALTA Conservation.” ALTA Conservation RSS. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.