In the spring of 1994, the Los Angeles Zoo was loaned tigers from the Wildlife Way Station, a non-profit Animal Sanctuary, for breeding while broadening the genetic diversity of their tiger population.
Tigers are very endangered in the wild. Much of their Asian habitat was lost in the Vietnam War when napalm burned up their forest (and, sadly, much of their population). In India, the growing human population has caused deforestation throughout their habitat there. As the number of tigers dwindle in the world, the importance of maintaining a genetically diverse zoo population has increased. Zoo breeding programs have become more important over time and careful records are kept to maintain genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding. Zoos and other animal facilities frequently share tigers for this purpose.
“When the Wildlife Way Station lent the zoo tigers for breeding, it was a stressful project right from the beginning,” Scott related to me, shaking his head. “The male tiger kept getting beat up by the more aggressive females,” he said, with obvious male compassion.
I tried not to smile, but it was hard.
“Finally we got the Wildlife Way Station to send four less aggressive females and things began looking up.”
“Then one female went “off her feed,” he said, frowning. “It’s always bad when an animal stops eating. So I decided we had better take her up to the facility to be endoscoped right away.”
Endoscoping involves putting a long plastic tube containing a light and viewing device down into the tiger’s stomach to look for ulcers and other abnormalities. Because it was a procedure he had rarely done, Scott brought in Dr. Todd Tams, an expert gastroenterologist, to look her over. They had to first dark the tiger and put her under anesthesia to move her up to the medical facility.
“Drugging big cats is not an easy task. The new anesthesia drugs at the time were causing some neurological damage to big cats post-operatively. So I fell back on some older standard drugs. The risks were still there, as these drugs could cause respiratory problems, but they were considered safer than the alternative.”
“We intubated the tiger and put her into the back of the zoo pick-up truck for transport. I sat down by her tail with the I.V. while the anesthesia technician sat by her head maintaining the anesthesia equipment. Three keepers and Dr. Tams sat around the edge of the truck as we readied to move up across the park to the hospital.”
“Then with a last minute check I noticed that the tiger’s lips and tongue had gone pale and her breathing had slowed. This is a known side affect of the drug I’d used, but it is not a good thing. In theory, they can just stop breathing altogether and die. I decided to start an infusion of a slight respiratory stimulant to restore her breathing and color. I watched her for signs of recovery. Slowly she began to breathe normally again and I relaxed a little.”
“Everyone in truck had been patiently waiting, watching this process. They got ready to start moving, chatting easily. It was a beautiful California day with bright sunshine and blue sky.”
“I looked her over once more and was about to nod to the driver to get going when I noticed that her breathing had begun to quicken. No one else noticed yet. I looked her over quickly and noticed with a little thrill of fear that she was starting to blink her eyes. I felt a trickle of sweat pop out on my forehead. Then suddenly, a low guttural growl rumbled from her throat. My mouth went completely dry. I literally could not swallow. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”
“The others in the truck jumped at the sound of the growl and for one brief moment everyone’s eyes were riveted to the tiger’s twitching face. Her sleek, 300-pound body was all muscle. This was an example of the largest, carnivorous feline on Earth and she seemed to be waking up.”
“Then, like the proverbial sinking ship, all three keepers and Dr. Tamms reacted at once. In a simultaneous move, like navy seals going backwards into the sea, they all bailed out of the truck. I had the giddy urge to yell, “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” as I saw them all disappear over the side. I was alone with the anesthesia technician and, of course, this stirring tiger.”
“A calm settled over me finally as my brain began to recover from the flood of adrenaline. I thought we should get her back into her bedroom in the tiger house, but it would take several people to lift her and I could see the keepers receding into the distance as they ran for their lives. There was no choice but to wait it out.”
“In reality, this was not as bad as it seemed. It just meant that enough air had passed around the intubation tube and through her vocal cords that she could make noise. But the growling sound at that close range with no protective bars between us was terrifying.”
Since that day, Scott has admitted to me that the only reoccurring nightmare he ever had about his years at the Zoo was of a tiger jumping on his back as he leaned over his medical bag in the narrow passage of the tiger house. The seed for that dream started in the back of the truck that day.
“What happened?” I asked, a little impatiently.
He smiled. He’d obviously survived.
“The tiger continued to growl and I became more certain that this was all subconscious and that she would not wake up. I began to breathe again, though my mouth was still too dry to swallow. I smiled at the anesthesia technician who had bravely stayed at her post, though she was as white as a sheet.”
“I learned something that day,” Scott said to me when he was done telling me the story.
I loved these moments. He had such knowledge, such wisdom, such a clarity of thought.
He looked at me and very seriously said, “Never ride in the back of a pick up with something that can eat your face.”
Words to live by.