Behind the Scenes at TIGER SPLASH
Posted January 24, 2014 & filed under Animal Blog
Thanks for agreeing to sit with me, we receive so many questions about Tiger Splash, we’re excited to give some behind-the-scenes knowledge to the fans. Let’s start from the beginning; how did Tiger Splash come to be?
A while back we had a tiger named Genesis, who has since passed away of old age, but was born with his hind-leg kneecaps on the wrong side of his leg, most likely due to improper breeding techniques. When he came to the park he required three different surgeries to put the kneecaps on the front side of his legs. After the surgeries, the doctor suggested water therapy to help ease the strain on his new joints. Naturally, out park built a pool, but Genesis never swam in it. Since Genesis wouldn’t swim in the pool we started bringing the other animals in and playing with them. Since then, Tiger Splash evolved into what it is now.
It doesn’t seem that those animals would feel comfortable with just anyone in the arena with them. What kind of work must be done before the animals become comfortable with the caretakers who interact with them?
Our caretakers spend as much time as possible feeding, playing and having quiet time with the animals. Most of the animals in Tiger Splash have been with their keepers since they arrived at the park. In the instance of introducing new caretakers to the animals, we use a slow process beginning with introductions through the fence and progressing to actual interactions with the friendlier animals. You have to become part of their family. Our animals aren’t trained or coerced to perform.
It seems as if the keepers and animals become very close through this process. You mentioned these animals aren’t trained to perform and aren’t forced into the play arena; what behavioral queues tell the caretakers that an animal doesn’t wish to participate that day?
Most of the tigers love to go to the arena, but if they don’t, they simply don’t get up. The days they want to go they’re up eagerly pacing by the door to get into the arena. Once they get to the arena, if they don’t want to play, it’s a pretty boring show (laughing). For the audience…well, they still get to enjoy a laugh when the staff tries really hard to get the cats to jump in the pool and the cats just stare at them.
Do Tigers ever interact like this in the wild?
Absolutely. Tigers are natural water cats. They have slight webbing in-between their toes to allow them to move fluidly though water. In the wild they hunt, play and even mate in the water.
I had no idea they were so comfortable in water. Do any other animals at the park enjoy this type of play and interaction with the caretakers?
Yes. Particularly our grizzly bear named Cypress. She typically plays on Saturday afternoons at the Wonders of Wildlife show in the spring and summertime. Several other animals use the arena too. Our lions and leopards, although they generally avoid the water, still love to play. There are also a number of animals that enjoy playing and interacting with the keepers in their own habitats.
That’s interesting the lions wont get wet. Why won’t we see them interact in the same way the Tigers do?
We’ve had lions that play in the arena and occasionally get in the pool, but once they are in the water they’re clearly not happy about it. Also, lions are very protective of their toys, which creates difficulty when we try to continue playing with them and they won’t give the toys back.
I wouldn’t want to be the one to wrestle a toy from a lion! But back to Tiger Splash- What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen a Tiger do during their playtime?
We have one tiger that gets so excited that sometimes he’ll jump backwards like a bunny, that’s something you don’t see everyday. It’s also an amazing sight when our keepers dive in the pool, look up, and a tiger is jumping fully over our head. Their strength is humbling and it’s something that still takes our breath away.
I can’t imagine! Do you feed the Tigers directly after playtime or do you feed them before?
The tigers get snacks after the show during Feed-a-Tiger. They also get a regular big meal about an hour after the show every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday during Predator Feed. Other than that, the tigers don’t eat before or after the show.
What kinds of toys seem to get the best reaction from the animals? Where do you get them?
It depends on the tiger. We have a tiger that loves stuffed animals; we tend to get them from Goodwill or garage sales. We also have a tiger that loves gym shoes; unfortunately her favorites are size 15 and we don’t come across those too often. Other favorite toys enjoyed by most of the cats are big inflatable pool toys, which are usually purchased online. Toy donations are always welcome and people can learn about that on the Donate a Toy page of our website.
That’s good to know. I know in the past, Tiger Splash has received criticism about putting the caretakers at risk. How do you respond to those concerns?
We’re all doing what we love and doing it safely is always our first priority. That starts with a healthy respect for the animals we work with and an understanding of the risks involved. Most people don’t realize there’s a method to our madness, but there absolutely is.
Tiger Splash has run without incident for over 20 years because it is not a circus show. There is no training, and no coercing. Instead, we’re engaging natural instincts within the animals that are as much a part of their DNA as basic human instincts are of ours.
We are constantly reading the body language of our animals and watching for warnings that they may be getting upset. Animals don’t attack without reason or without any warning. They will tell us all we need to know, and we make sure we listen.
It’s good that safety comes first. The strong bond between caretaker and animal is very apparent when watching the interactions. To wrap this up, what can park visitors do to help contribute to Tiger Splash?
We always welcome toy donations. Anyone have an extremely large size gym shoe they don’t want anymore? We don’t need brand new toys, so if you have any popped pool toys we’d love to have them.
The easiest way to contribute is to be respectful throughout the show. Simple things, such as showing up before Tiger Splash begins, remaining seated during the show, and not antagonizing the tigers all make for a better and safer show for the staff inside the arena.