Keeper Stories – Tuesday, December 13
As a pet owner like many of you out there, I have experienced the pain of having to say goodbye to beloved animal members of my family. That kind of heartbreak is never easy. Animal keepers certainly know that their Zoo charges are not pets, and I for one have absolutely no desire to bring a tiger or giant otter home with me, but the feelings are very similar when you spend every day working around these amazing animals. Sadly, the Carnivore Team experienced this loss last week as we had to say goodbye to Kavi, our almost 16-year-old male Sumatran tiger.
Kavi was born on January 8 in 2001 at the Akron Zoo in Ohio. He came to us in his prime in 2006, and even though he spent time at the North Carolina Zoo (during habitat renovation) and the National Zoo (for a breeding recommendation) he was always considered to be a beloved member of the Zoo Atlanta family.
Kavi, in true cat fashion, could be a difficult animal to work with at times. He shifted only when and where he wanted, despite all of your efforts to get him to move on your schedule. He was smart and could be trained new behaviors when he was motivated, but it was difficult for him to find that motivation, no matter what keepers offered him as rewards. Those of you (un)lucky enough to attend a tiger training demonstration when Kavi was the tiger in question probably had the lovely experience of seeing his trainers and education staff give a wonderful, educational talk about training, all without seeing a tiger. On the rare occasion when he did come down to the panel during the demo, he most often would maybe do a total of three behaviors before walking away again. Oh, and he probably turned his rear to the crowd and lifted his tail to spray everyone as he left. Spraying people was one of his favorite things to do, and I swear he knew exactly when you let your guard down and weren’t expecting it, because that was always when it would come. The last time he got me was just a few months ago, full-on in the face. Gee, thanks Kavi!
Of course, those challenges all came from a beautiful and magnificent animal. As a male Sumatran tiger, he had a full beautiful ruff around his face and that gorgeous, dark orange coat heavily marked with thin black stripes. He had a fairly laid-back personality, as long as he liked you. He generally preferred females to males, small groups over large groups, and anybody was better than Dr. Sam. One of my favorite sounds in the world is a tiger chuff, a friendly greeting sound they make. Unlike our female Chelsea, Kavi was nice enough to occasionally chuff in the general direction of his keepers. Most of the time I think the chuffs were probably meant for Chelsea, but I was always so happy when I could at least pretend it was for me. Even though Kavi and Chelsea were always kept separately except during breeding, as tigers are a solitary species, they always enjoyed seeing each other and would usually rub on the mesh between them and chuff up a storm. Kavi was a ladies’ man and was always happy to see Chelsea. Oh, and don’t get me started on Kavi and his tongue. I swear he had it hanging out of his mouth at least 95 percent of the time, no matter how often I told him that it didn’t make him look very smart. According to at least one of my coworkers, it was Kavi’s attempt to level the playing field for other male tigers. He was just too handsome for them to compete with otherwise.
As stewards of the majestic animals in our care here at Zoo Atlanta, it is our responsibility to provide them with the best lives possible, and I feel that Kavi certainly lived a good life. In his senior years he developed arthritis, especially noticeable in his back. He was carefully monitored and treated with supplements to help with any discomfort. In the last year or so, his blood and urine have also been monitored regularly (or as regularly as possible, i.e. when he would cooperate with training) to make sure he was not having any other health issues. Sadly, a couple of weeks ago his condition deteriorated, and he seemed to be having a much harder time getting around. He showed no interest in going outside and spent even more time than usual sleeping, getting up only to get a drink of water or to empty his bladder before laying back down again. Animal care and veterinary staff monitored him closely and tried out a few more therapies, hoping to see some improvement, but it never came. When it came time to review his prognosis, unfortunately, the arthritis in his back was worsening, and his mobility was going to continue to decline. The best way for us to honor our responsibility to providing Kavi with the best care was to let him go before the pain became even more debilitating. This decision was made with the utmost care and integrity and commitment to Kavi’s quality of life, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. Knowing that it was the best thing we could have done for him doesn’t make us miss him any less. As animal care professionals, we have to make those difficult decisions and put aside our own heartache, because providing our animals with the best lives possible means we’re there to the end. As painful as it is to say goodbye, I can’t imagine giving up the animals in my life, so I know that I will have many more sad goodbyes in my future. However, there are so many positive and amazing moments that make the pain worth it. Hearing those random tiger chuffs, watching an animal play with a new toy, and successfully completing a training goal are all things I would not want to give up, just as I would not give up having a purring domestic cat sleeping in my lap. Rest in peace dear handsome Kavi-tron. You will definitely be missed.
Keeper II, Mammals