This story first appeared in the Chicago Reader.
Once, when a young tiger's thoughts turned to love, he'd sniff around for a similarly inclined young lady, stalk into her territory, grab her by the neck, and have at it. But all that is old school. These days there's not much left in the way of territory. There's not much left in the way of Siberian tigers. A scant 250 roam the wild. So the modern tiger must rely on modern means of meeting a suitable mate. We browse the personals; he consults the "species survival plan," computer dating service to the world's captive tigers.
Hence the scene behind-the-scenes last week at Lincoln Park Zoo. Rachelle, meet Sikhote. Sikhote, Rachelle.
It was a dull first date. "She got up and followed to his side, he walked around, she followed," says Kelly McGrath, one of several chaperones on hand, most of whom were armed with heavy-gauge hoses, fire extinguishers, and an emergency lockdown strategy. "She lay down. They puffed and rubbed noses. That was it." No one got hurt. No one got killed. Success.
A dream date like that doesn't come easy. It took months of planning, weeks of priming, and plenty of primping, at least among the mammal staff at the zoo.
For the past two years Sikhote, a stunningly handsome 344-pound Siberian, has stalked the big-cat habitat on the northeast side of the Kovler Lion House. Perhaps he was content pacing the red stone confines, gazing across the moat, considering the succulent flesh of darling young zoo patrons. Or perhaps he'd gotten to thinking about the weatherproof placard affixed to the public side of his lair. "Why do cats live alone?" it asked. Why indeed. The answer, according to zoo lore, is that the average wild carnivore has a hard time making ends meet. By staking out a promising piece of real estate and posting No Trespassing scat, he could lay sole claim to all the deer and boar he could fell.
Of course things work differently in an urban setting. Six days a week chipper young Cindy Swisher, lead keeper in the lion house, serves up 15 pounds of raw horse meat along with the occasional shank-bone appetizer. But that's beside the point. Sikhote, who was born in captivity, pursued the bachelor lifestyle.
Unbeknownst to him, however, busybodies were trying to fix him up.
Both the American tiger dating service and the global tiger dating service are located at the Minnesota Zoo in the person of Ron Tilson, tiger matchmaker. Aided by detailed studbooks and some snappy software, Tilson calculates the mean kinship values of each of the 151 Siberian tigers held in American Zoo and Aquarium Association zoos, then decides who should get to know whom. The point is to match up tigers with as little in common--genetically speaking--as possible. While we may pursue shapely buns or comely earning potential, Panthera tigris altaica--a rare breed indeed--seeks gene-pool diversity.
When Tilson spots a pleasing pair he writes up a breeding recommendation, more or less a prescription to procreate. (For those unable to meet in the flesh, there's the option of contributing sperm or eggs to a "frozen zoo.")
Getting cozy wasn't always so clinical. In less enlightened times zoos encouraged their captive guests to do the wild thing willy-nilly, keeping their tourist attractions stocked with crowd-pleasing babies. The results were pathetic, inbred, homeless creatures. Hence species survival plans--planned parenthood for the wild at heart.
Last year Tilson's talents singled out Sikhote, the big guy born at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina, and Rachelle, a 212-pound beauty born in the Bronx, as a likely pair. Likely, but not a sure thing. Still, folks at Lincoln Park took to the idea of introducing the two, whom they expected would receive a breeding recommendation soon.
Both tigers, now six-year-olds, were new to the dating game. But with tigers you don't just do lunch. "There's a potential for injury," says Mark Rosenthal, curator of mammals at Lincoln Park Zoo. "These guys have claws and teeth--good killing weapons. And those weapons can do significant damage."
Thus the more cautious approach. First Rachelle made the trip from Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City, Kansas, and settled into the habitat on the northwest side of the lion house. The his and hers outdoor display areas sit side by side, divided by a fake stone wall of chicken wire and gunite. But that wasn't much of a barrier to the curious cats. Sometimes they'd serenade one another in the twilight. A couple times some miscreant of a zoo patron baited Rachelle into the moat, where she (by design) remained stuck. Sikhote, sensing his unseen soul mate in distress, let out a roar of protest. That seemed like a good sign.
Playing Puck, keepers next poached cat scat from each habitat and switched the samples. Then the animals traded habitats, an idea that has potential as a human predate ritual. This gave the tigers time to check out each other's digs and droppings.
The first tete-a-tete was scheduled for a more intimate setting, a squeeze cage in the back rooms of the lion house. A squeeze cage is pretty much what it sounds like--cement floor, brick back, three sliding walls of steel mesh. Open it's about the size of two tigers, flank to flank. Squeezed it's about the size of one. What with the close quarters and fluorescent lighting and red stickers warning Danger and Hands Off, it can't be an easy place to make a devastating first impression. But what's a tiger to do?
Curatorial Cupids lured Sikhote into squeeze cage one. Rachelle took squeeze cage three. Two remained empty, a buffer between the massive cats in their matching orange coats. Across the divide yellow eye met yellow eye. Two broad pink noses sniffed. Two striped tails slashed the air.
The romance is recorded on a series of handwritten Individual Animal Records. Alongside entries like "loose stool" and "diarrhea today" are duly noted "visual access to #9854" (that would be she) or "visual access to #9759 (that would be he). Petlike "house names" are discouraged in official zoo documents. Soon the buffer cage was eliminated, allowing the darling duo to sniff and lick through the maddening mesh, but no more.
Finally the big day arrived. On a Tuesday morning two weeks ago the lion house was closed, not only to afford the pair a little privacy, but to protect the tender public from the sight of a tiger imbroglio. Rosenthal and his team set their backstage maze of hatches and tunnels to form a circular pathway. "We wanted to give them as much room as possible," says Rosenthal. "Things can go wrong in a number of ways." Three keepers took up their strategic positions; one slid open the steel door.
Rachelle made the first move, entering the cage of her would-be beau and taking a whiff. Sikhote backed up, but she kept on coming. They rubbed face, then puffed, the big cat's version of purring that comes out somewhere between a spit and a roar. Then they retreated.
That's pretty much the way things have stood since. During the day the door remains open between his place and hers. But mostly the two stick to their own sides, lazing about the way cats will. A couple times, however, they've been spotted lounging in the same cage. "This tells us things are going pretty well," says Rosenthal. If all continues in such a friendly fashion, the two should make their public debut this week, together, in a single habitat.
And then, who knows? We might imagine Rachelle, basking in the joy of cohabitation and with the blessing of the species survival plan, moved to remove her Norplant-style contraceptive, clearing the way for a litter of little ones. We might imagine Sikhote as proud papa.
But in the real world love stories are always complicated. To the zookeepers' surprise, when this year's breeding recommendations were announced last week, they didn't call Rachelle and Sikhote's numbers. In the shifting mathematics of gene-pool poker it now seems Sikhote is better suited to the tigress at Brookfield. If that's the case, and the two institutions can broker a deal, the zoos could swap females in the spring. Then the delicate art of tiger introductions would begin again, leaving the star-crossed lovers with mere memories.