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Beyond a fence, down a 10-foot drop, across a moat, beside a rocky shore protected on both sides by steep cliffs, three young tigers romp on sun-dappled, green, green grass. There's something fairy-tale about the setting; the multiple physical barriers, the striking beauty of the residents--their eyes of fire, their garments of marigold striped with ebony, their faces showing nothing but royal disdain. No wonder William Blake exclaimed upon the tiger's fearful burning divinity; no wonder Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration, clothes himself in a tiger skin; no wonder the tiger represents yin, the energizing force, in the Chinese I Ching. According to the I Ching, "The breath of the tiger creates the wind and the breath of the dragon creates the clouds; together they create the rain."
The three tigers frolicking this spring afternoon at the Minnesota Zoo make believable fairy-tale princes, stretching high up the sides of tree trunks to scratch signs in tiger code, rolling in the sun, their long white belly fur rumpled with water from the moat, carrying horse knee bones between their teeth as carelessly as you might carry a lollipop.The trumpets of peacocks, swans, and other noble fowl echo nearby, but turn your head for an instant to look for these colorful birds, and the tigers disappear.
You crane your neck to see whether they've headed to the back of the exhibit when suddenly a deafening roar cracks out from among the rocks--deafening not because it's loud, though it is, but because the roar of the tiger is so primally terrifying it causes your blood to freeze and leaves you barely able to stand. "Tigers are keen on picking up differences between individuals," zookeeper Ross Taylor will explain later. "They depend on their physical abilities and powers of observation to survive."
In the same way tigers in the wild test their prey before pouncing, these little princes have been sizing you up--carefully calculating your line of sight, then hiding just out of view to determine your reaction. And the fact that they don't look playful, or angry, or anything except very coolly interested makes the behavior all the more terrifying. Those bright eyes, you realize, are taking you in with the same unself-conscious, hungry impatience you might assume while waiting for the toast to be done.
Which may be why the tigers at the Minnesota Zoo are among only a few hundred left of their breed. It's been 150-odd years since reliable, accurate guns leapfrogged humans ahead of tigers in carnivorous superiority, and we've made strikingly effective use of that power. Think of us as well-armed, vengeful deer.
At the turn of the century, 100,000 wild tigers roamed a range from the Siberian tundra to Indonesia to Turkey. Today there are probably 7,500, and three of what were once eight tiger subspecies have disappeared from the face of the earth. If, as the World Wildlife Fund predicts, within a decade "the only tigers left in the world may be those kept in zoos," we will lose one of the few remaining natural reminders that people are not as evolutionarily superior as we like to think.
If, on the other hand, the wild tiger survives, it may be precisely, and ironically, because some of its kin were kept in zoos--and because of the decision by some of those institutions, including Minnesota's, not to settle for captivity as the tiger's future.
The Apple Valley institution has had "a commitment to tigers" since it opened 20 years ago, says CEO Kathryn Roberts; witness the outdoor exhibit, home to six Siberian tiger males and two females. But popular as the carefully designed mini-habitat may be, it's only the visible tip of an iceberg: The zoo's real tiger business is conducted far from visitors' view. In a series of buildings at the compound's eastern edge, zoo Director of Conservation Ron Tilson marshals a staff of colleagues and graduate students who make up one of the most powerful forces in tiger conservation today.
"For the longest time we have been referred to as the 'Minnesota Mafia,'" says Tilson, "because the tiger anchor is set here. We at the Minnesota Zoo developed the [world tiger conservation] program, we have maintained the program, and we coordinate it to this day."
Tilson is a warm, easy-going man with the sort of pacific confidence associated more with retired surfers than biologists. His office is filled with popular images of tigers--posters showing tigers leaping out of gas pumps, wildlife-magazine covers with tigers staring coolly from their rocky perches. (Globus, one of the three young males at the zoo, made the cover of National Geographic.)
Tilson has been living and breathing tigers--literally--for 14 years. He has immobilized them for medical reasons, supervised their mating, and helped deliver their cubs; he's even dug through their insides during autopsies. Tilson has been as intimate with tigers as people can get, and for his troubles he now gets hives: "I don't pursue personal relationships with tigers," he says, "because I've handled tigers so many times over the years that I'm now allergic to them. If I so much as touch one, I break right out."