Do you speak tiger?
During our day-to-day routine, animal care staff are constantly monitoring the animals to make sure they are healthy. We watch their behavior, how they move, their appetites, bathroom habits, and how they interact with their environment and conspecifics (other individuals that they share space with). Vocalizations are also a big indicator of an animal’s well-being.
We hear a few different vocalizations from our Sumatran tiger pair each day, but the most common is called a “contact call.” A contact call is generally used to let another tiger know that the territory is occupied. Contact calls kind of sound like the tiger is saying “owwWW” over and over. Since we have two tigers here at the Zoo, one tiger will spend half the day outside in the tiger habitat, while the other spends that time in the indoor network of dens. Partway through the day, keepers will swap the tigers so that both get to spend time outside with their adoring fans as well as inside with the extra attention of their care team. Since our tigers share the same territory (albeit at separate times), it is common for them to use contact calls to reestablish their territory after they trade places.
During “tiger swaps,” we also commonly hear another vocalization: prusten, commonly called a chuff. Chuffing is an affiliative, or friendly, vocalization that can only be produced by big cats. It is used between a mother and her cubs as well as toward a mate (and if we’re super-lucky, a favored keeper). Chelsea is a very chatty lady, so we frequently hear her start to chuff as soon as we start opening shift doors to let her inside. Emerson is a shy guy and not nearly as vocal, so his chuffs usually catch everyone off guard, even Chelsea.
Other vocalizations that we might hear on occasion include moans, which sound like a mixture between a whine and a contact call, and hisses – because we all get grumpy from time to time.
Vocalizations are a great indicator of the budding relationship between our tigers (and keepers). I really enjoy hearing the tigers call to each other (maybe more so than the lion boys roaring). So if you hear a very loud, distinctive vocalization coming from Complex Carnivores during your next visit to the Zoo, don’t be alarmed, it’s just Emerson and Chelsea talking to each other!
Keeper II, Mammals