Highland Wildlife Blog – When should you pull a tiger’s tail?
November 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park
Taking your dog to the vet or putting your horse in a trailer usually involves leashes, halters and a few calm but firm words. Trying to carry out similarly routine procedures with zoo animals is seldom so straightforward and at best involves a very different process.
The keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park have a very positive relationship with many of their animal charges and a range of routine husbandry needs can be managed with the cooperation of the animals concerned. At a basic level, visitors are often strangely surprised when they learn that many animals will respond to being called by their keepers to be transferred into an adjacent area to allow cleaning or enclosure maintenance. The Park’s large carnivore keepers have trained these potentially very dangerous creatures to present themselves at the enclosure barrier for some simple daily health checks. They will, when asked, present a paw or their belly, or hold their mouth open for closer inspection, which is rewarded with some small pieces of meat for the tigers or a range of unusual morsels for the polar bears, like tomatoes or cheese. They, along with the camels, have been trained to walk onto scales so that we can more accurately monitor their weight, which is crucial when it comes to calculating how much medication they might need when sick. This positive reinforcement training is also an interesting and enjoyable experience for the animals concerned as many seem to welcome the interaction with humans that they know, as well as the treats.
Zoo keepers, being a resourceful bunch, will often find uses for items that the manufacturers did not intend. When you need to catch and move a water vole, a small rodent that thinks it is a bear, the tube that a certain salty snack comes in is the ideal restraint and short transport device as they will happily walk in of their own accord.
For more invasive procedures, like a dental check, the animals need to be anaesthetised for their own and our safety. There are a range of drugs that have proven to be as safe as possible for the animals and staff around them. Sometimes hand injected, sometimes delivered using a dart gun, it takes between 10 and 20 minutes for the animal to go down; it is not virtually instantaneous, as often depicted in films. When the drugs appear to have taken effect upon a tiger, one very gently taps on the ears and eyelids with a long pole. If there are any twitches or blinking, you wait a bit longer. When a new drug combination came along it was discovered that the usual gentle tapping was not enough. You could touch the ears and eyes and get no reaction and the animal would appear to be safe, but if you pulled the tail and the drug had not quite taken effect, the cat could jump up and start moving around, which is a touch disconcerting, so always give the tail a couple of tugs before going all the way in!
This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald