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Sunday, 10/27/02    |    Middle Tennessee News & Information

Feared as man-eaters in Malaysia, rare tigers may find haven at Nashville zoo

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By KELLI SAMANTHA HEWETT
Staff Writer

MELAKA, Malaysia Nashville Zoo at Grassmere Director Rick Schwartz traveled 10,000 miles this month on a diplomatic safari aimed at making zoo history.

He intends to bring the first man-eating Indochinese tigers to Nashville an achievement that could turn a national spotlight on Nashville and help earn the zoo world's elite badge of honor.

If U.S. officials allow them in, the endangered Malaysian cats which could be approved to come here by December would introduce much-needed new bloodlines to North American zoos, where all the Indochinese tigers originate from only four ancestors and inbreeding is a growing risk.

''For me, a cat guy, this has been my passion my whole life,'' Schwartz said.

This rare opportunity was born from an epidemic of tiger attacks across rural Malaysia, which has gripped the country as did our Washington sniper scare. Four people were attacked or killed in one village, and the terror has played out again and again. Some tigers have ripped, torn and gnawed their countrymen. Others have shredded precious livestock.

These cats are known by their sins, not their names, and they pace out each day in their cells of rusty metal and concrete at Zoo Melaka. In this tiger Alcatraz, they lunge and slam against their pens when the unfamiliar invades: a water hose at bath time or the probing gaze of a stranger. The snarls roll out in deep, drawling blasts.

Government patrols could shoot killer animals. But instead, Malaysian leaders funnel the deadly culprits to this tiger jail. It is two hours from the capital of Kuala Lumpur, which Americans know from the film Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Malaysian officials bend to a culture that adores much that is American but everything tiger, from balm to beer to the mythical powers of tiger flesh. Legend tells that a piece of tiger forehead protects human skin from bullets and eating tiger penis can give a man prowess, like the cat that can mate 40 times a day.

''It is part of the culture, part of the heritage,'' said Musa B. Nordin, director general of the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks. ''They feel it's not the animal's problem, it's homo sapiens that created the problems.''

This widespread passion for creatures and beasts is almost impossible to find in the United States.

''Here you have an animal that is killing people,'' Schwartz said. ''Even family members, they don't want the tigers killed. I was amazed.''

U.S. challenges

Back home, Schwartz must convince federal officials that the United States needs these tigers and that his program can somehow help the remaining wild tigers in Malaysia. Securing U.S. import permits can be a daunting long shot to many animal experts. But Schwartz is confident that his plan, which gives money to Malaysian poaching patrols, will satisfy the U.S. standards.

''I think it's historic,'' Schwartz said. ''Nobody I know of is opposed.''

For the Malaysian leaders, Schwartz's plan could soothe a political nightmare. One official suggested enlisting the army to shoot the cats on sight but a nation cried no. Many people blamed humans for growth and development reaching farther into the wild, forcing tigers toward rubber plantations and other villages. Officials say that if plantation owners would clear out the nearby brush, their worker, who are often the victims, would be safe because tigers would lose a hiding place.

Tigers who attack people are often older or injured cats who struggle to find their typical, wild prey.

These killer tigers are trapped between life and death, in a land of people that love and fear them all the wild and wayward. The government struggles to pay the $26 a day to feed each cat, more than the average zoo worker makes in a month.

''There's no way we can release them back into the forest,'' said Muhammad Khan, who helped initiate Malaysia's tiger protection laws and is now chairman of the Malaysian Rhino Foundation. ''You will be giving them a better life in the U.S.''

In Nashville, where Schwartz says the first pair would arrive, the tigers would first go to Joelton, the original zoo site now used for breeding. There they could begin the transition to zoo life. The $10,000 price tag fits nicely into the zoo's animal budget, and Schwartz hopes to enlist an airline to volunteer the shipping.

National buzz

A national shortage of new Indochinese breeding tigers has other zoos already in line for more cats. Schwartz plans to import as many as six of the 18 captured cats. Malaysian officials are willing to breed 14 others that Schwartz wants for other zoos.

''It's the responsibility of zoos to be doing conservation work, not just be an entertainment facility for the community,'' Schwartz said.

The program could go a long way toward earning respect for Nashville's young zoo and could help in March with its all-important accreditation application with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the badge of quality and elitism in zoo circles.

''We fight the accreditation issue every day,'' Schwartz said. ''It's not a matter of effort, quality or drive, it's a matter of funds.''

The Nashville Zoo needs to spend an additional $5 million on construction and exhibits before it can apply for accreditation in March. Schwartz is still working to raise money for things such as an elephant exhibit, more animal quarantine space and an employee breakroom all needed to meet requirements of the AZA.

U.S. zoos in Cincinnati and San Diego are discussing how they might join Nashville's program.

Help in the wild

To meet U.S. requirements and help stop poaching in Malaysia, zoos that acquire cats will donate as much as $5,000 per tiger to the Malaysian wild animal protection patrols. More camera traps, trucks and guns will help the war against poaching, or the illegal killing of animals. The practice is problematic with rhinoceroses, tigers and other wild animals profitable for everything from medicine to interior decorating.

For now these 18 tigers are safe but restless, away from public view in their individual cages. The Zoo Melaka sits near a stretch of interstate that resembles Interstate 65 between Franklin and Columbia. The zoo, with its paved walkways, clean exhibits and concession stands, draws tour buses of visitors and schoolchildren.

Across the hills toward the back is the tiger jail, where workers still wince and guard their fingers and toes.

This is a place where 300- and 400-pound predators hunker with the grace of Olympic runners. They leap along the walls, then rear up on hind legs to thrash against metal.

This is a place where Rick Schwartz, unflinching, scans the Melaka paperwork and studies each cat like a work of art.

''They are in relatively good condition,'' Schwartz said. ''Much better than I thought. Some of them are beautiful.''

He has been one of the few people to have breeding success with endangered clouded leopards, and his innovation in hand-raising their cubs has helped change the zoo association's former distaste for it, experts say.

If you're wondering whether Schwartz is a bit mad to bring home killer tigers, you aren't alone.

''When I explained this to my board (of directors), man, oh man, oh man,'' Schwartz said. ''They looked at me like I was crazy.''

The first question was, ''Rick, is this a good idea?''

'No more dangerous'

National zoo officials and longtime cat experts say these Indochinese tigers are no more dangerous than any other tigers.

The last wild-caught Indochinese tiger was captured in Singapore and came to Cincinnati Zoo in 1990. The tiger, named Tengku, is still on exhibit and has fathered most of the Indochinese tigers in the United States.

The cat has made a fine transition to zoo life, zoo keepers say.

''Just because these animals have'' eaten people ''doesn't make them any more dangerous,'' said Mike Dulaney of the Cincinnati Zoo.

Any other zoo cat could do as much damage if not properly secured, said Dulaney, who is also an official coordinator of Indochinese tigers in North America through the zoo association.

Tengku is one of only four tiger ancestors whose descendants are in U.S. zoos. Inbreeding shows up in the Indochinese tigers through problems such as crossed eyes, spine and hip problems. Zoo association records show only 37 Indochinese tigers in the United States, with most being born here.

''There is certainly a great interest,'' Dulaney said. ''This is, to my knowledge, the only time'' importing wild tigers has ''been done on this large of a scale.''

There may also be an attendance boost for U.S. zoos that exhibit them, said Alan Shoemaker, retired from the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., with 30 years of tiger experience.

''They will be a real draw because (people) will know why they were caught,'' said Shoemaker, who is also assisting Nashville with its tiger permits. ''The public goes berserk to see them.''

But Schwartz, the low-key conservationist, waxes poetic about the contributions to the animal world both near and far.

While he won't deny the intrigue of those three spellbinding words, he refuses the hype around them: ''I'm trying not to get too caught up in the sensationalism of the 'man-eating tiger.' ''

Bringing tigers to Nashville

Nearly 90% of the animals at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere come from other North American zoos. Bringing Indo-Chinese tigers to the zoo will be a much more intense undertaking. Here's a quick look at how Nashville Zoo officials hope to bring tigers to town:

First things first

Nashville Zoo, like most others, has long-range plans for collecting new animals. There are also guidelines from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which might include suggestions for recommended species or required habitat locations. Nashville Zoo staff works to balance its wants and needs with the AZA suggestions.

Decisions

Officials agree on what they want to bring to Nashville. This can be based on endangered species, genetic issues, or an assortment of other reasons. In the case of the Indo-Chinese tigers, it was to help protect them from extinction.

Find the animals

While most animals come to Nashville via other U.S. zoos, requests for animals can be made world-wide. Officials call, e-mail or visit other zoos, reputable U.S. dealers or places listed in the AZA's ''studbook,'' which provides a listing of approved zoos or other locations where specific animals are being bred. Since Nashville's zoo is not yet accredited, some zoos won't give animals to it. Sometimes, the zoo must take a ''trial'' group, such as all male animals, to establish a track record with the particular species. Then it can request pairs for breeding.

Paperwork

If the animals are endangered and from overseas, the zoo officials must get permits from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Department to bring them into the country, which can take several months. If the animals are from overseas, zoo officials may make a visit (as they did to Malaysia for the tigers) to verify health, sex and other details about the animals.

Travel arrangements

With permits in hand, zoo officials can make travel arrangements, order crates for shipping, fly to the desired location and escort larger animals (such as the tiger) to Nashville in cargo planes. Smaller animals can actually fly in cargo sections of commercial airplanes. Animals in the states can be driven here in professional animal transporters. Birds and hoof stock from overseas must be quarantined for 30 days at a federal facility in Miami. Not unlike your standard bed & breakfast, reservations are required and are based on availability. Cost is minimal.

SOURCE: Rick Schwartz, Nashville Zoo Director


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