NEW YORK -- Tiger Mountain at the Bronx Zoo is the new $8.5 million home of half a dozen Siberian tigers that have been moved from the Wild Asia exhibit, where people riding a monorail once got their best glimpses of tigers through binoculars.
Tiger Mountain offers the possibility of nose-to-nose views through inch-thick glass. Or, if the tigers decide to go for a swim in the 10,000-gallon pool, through 2-inch-thick glass.
One recent Monday not much swimming was going on. One tiger went so far as to drink from the pool. One person's 10,000-gallon pool is one tiger's 10,000-gallon water dish.
"Come on, babe, get in," said Richard Lattis, a vice president of the society. "This is like people who go to the beach and just want to be seen and don't want to get wet." The tiger -- Taurus, an 11-year-old female whose twin sister, Zeff, was not far away -- later plopped down on a rock that serves as a waterfall feeding the pool. She was 15 or 20 feet away. "You just don't get these kinds of views," Lattis said.
For those who remember William Blake's famous verse -- "Tiger! Tiger! burning bright/In the forests of the night" -- Tiger Mountain is a forest, half the size of the Central Park Zoo, said Steven E. Sanderson, president and chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
John Gwynne, the society's vice president and chief creative officer, said the zoo's design team had worked hard to make the 3-acre Tiger Mountain "feel like a place that feels like Asia." But this is Asia with creature comforts. There is a rock with a heating element to make wintertime lounging more pleasant. There is a rock that has cool water piped in to make summertime lounging bearable. And there is a tree that smells of Obsession.
This is not a tiger fashion secret -- they do not wear it, they roll around in it. "It's musk-based," explained Sue Chin, one of the designers. "They also roll around in deer feces, so it's not necessarily a commenting on how great the perfume is."
In other words, cats will be cats -- these just happen to weigh 250 to 600 pounds and to be on endangered species lists. "People that have cats, they'll be surprised how many behaviors they see in their pets that they'll see in our tigers, doing the same things," said Patrick Thomas, the zoo's mammal curator.
Giant cat toys
Giant cats, though, need giant toys. So at Tiger Mountain, a scratching post is a tree. There is a ball on a spring, but the ball is the size of a bowling ball and the spring has links like a chain. There are treats -- smallish morsels of liver, for example.
But cat owners do not feed Fluffy or Princess from behind a floor-to-ceiling metal gate, the way the tigers' keepers do. Fluffy and Princess have not lost finger-size incisors to roughhousing with siblings, the way some of the tigers at Tiger Mountain have. And Fluffy or Princess do not claim an old tire as a favorite toy, the way one of the residents at Tiger Mountain does (Sasha, the lone male).
"Our goal is to have animals engaged in normal behaviors," Thomas said. "You want the exhibit to inspire visitors to care about saving tigers."
5,000 tigers left
The society, which has been involved in tiger conservation since the 1960s, says there are only 5,000 tigers left in the wild.
Not that the six at Tiger Mountain are exactly tame. A zoo videographer, Thomas J. Veltre, manager of the media services office, remembers the time in Wild Asia that he zoomed in for a close-up -- maybe the close-up on the monitor that caught Taurus' eye as she looked through the inch-thick glass on Monday. That monitor, on the far wall of the humans' side of the glass, shows videotaped views of tigers so visitors can say they saw a tiger if the real ones have sauntered out of sight. Taurus' long-distance vision is so good she was glued to the tube.
Back to Veltre and his close-up, which happened to be of Alexis, a 6-year-old born at the zoo. "I got a good shot," Veltre said, "and she turned around and lunged right at the fence."
Did he mention that he was on the other side of the fence? Or that he caught the whole thing on tape? Not at first. He was still talking about the suddenness, the visceralness. "She looks up very cute," he said, "and, `Roar!'"