Visitors who go to the Baltimore Zoo looking for tigers will discover a pacing cheetah and a memorial sign. Fasier and Roxanne, Siberian tigers who have been favorites with zoo-goers since 1988, are no more.
The tigers, 16-year-old siblings, were euthanized because of health problems. Zoo officials say they have no immediate plans to replace the tigers, which are on the endangered species list. For the first time in more than two decades, the zoo does not have tigers, by far one its most popular exhibits through the years and a mainstay attraction at major zoos across the country.
Fasier was put down in April after developing an arthritic hip and intestinal and heart problems. Kidney disease, an arthritic elbow and a bladder infection prompted zoo officials to euthanize Roxanne in December. They were considered middle-age for Siberians, who can live 20 to 25 years.
"Tigers are obviously very popular and tell a great story," said Dr. Michael Cranfield, the zoo's director of animal management, research and conservation and the park's chief veterinarian. "But it's a good time for the zoo to reflect. We are going in a different direction with our exhibits."
Meanwhile, Ben Gross, a zoo spokesman, said zoo visitors often ask: "Where are the tigers?
John Vingsen visited the tiger exhibit at the zoo yesterday and discovered the memorial sign. It says: "For over 15 years, Fasier and Roxanne delighted guests with their impressive growls and powerful strides. They will be sorely missed by staff and guests."
The cage that once held Fasier and Roxanne is now a holding cell for a male cheetah. Vingsen and many other zoo visitors have been surprised when they see the memorial sign and no tigers.
"I was hoping to see the tigers today. I was telling my daughter that she would see lions and tigers and bears," said Vingsen of Hanover, Pa., who visited the zoo with his wife, Kate, and two daughters, Riley, 3, and Abbey, 8 months. "I remember coming to this zoo when I was little and seeing the tigers, and I wanted [Riley] to see them."
Zoo officials said the tigers' health deteriorated badly before they were euthanized. Roxanne's left, front elbow grew so bad that she walked with a straight-leg limp, refusing to bend the joint. Fasier had lesions on his arthritic hip and was hospitalized for months and endured four surgeries before he was finally put to sleep. In the last few months of their lives, both lived on a steady diet of horse meat, cow tripe and painkillers.
"It's like with older people: You try to do all you can to make them comfortable but sometimes there isn't much you can do," Cranfield said.
While it is unusual for a pair of middle-aged cats to die within five months of each other, zoo officials insist both animals were well cared for and put down only after the staff unanimously agreed that both animals were painfully uncomfortable.
Cranfield led weekly meetings with veterinarians, a curator and tiger keepers to discuss the tigers' behavior and to decide how long to let them live.
"When you euthanize, you wonder if you picked the right time," Cranfield said. "It's like you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. But I think they were suffering."
When the tigers came to the zoo in 1988, a year after they were born, the zoo did not know it had acquired a brother and sister that should not mate together. Fasier was used in the mid-1990s to mate with another female to produce tiger cubs for another zoo.
The Siberians, also known as Amur tigers, are the world's largest cats. They can grow to between 500 and 700 pounds and 9 to 11 feet long from head to tail. They are an endangered species, hunted for their striped coats.
There are about 500 Siberians in captivity at zoos and wildlife parks and about 400 remaining in the wild, according to the Tiger Information Center, a program of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Many zoos have species survival plans in place to save certain animals. Last week, three Siberian tiger cubs were born at a zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., as part of that zoo's species survival plan. And on May 30, two Siberians were born at the Minnesota Zoo.
Cranfield said that the Baltimore Zoo does not have a survival plan for Siberians and that the tigers no longer fit in the wildlife park's newly launched, cost-effective "wilderness and environment hot spots" theme. The zoo still has a few other big cats, including leopards, lions and cheetahs.
The new wilderness theme is being developed but is intended to focus on animals that have helped with environment conservation. It includes a new polar bear exhibit and will later include rare breeds of monkeys, bog turtles and river otters.
The zoo has had serious financial trouble in the past year, laying off or freezing 20 jobs and lending more than 400 animals to other zoos to help lower its operational cost. The zoo has 2,200 animals, including its elephants, which were also slated to be shipped elsewhere.