Moderator: Paul Scott and Tez Bobrowicz
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Generally speaking there is no completely safe way to play with a tiger – but meet him underwater and he is just a big pussycat, according to the experts at an American nature park who teach their tigers to swim.
The one-year-old tigers dive, splash and swim in the same pool as their handlers, reaching out for them with those huge and powerful paws – and yet the risk for Moksha Bybee and Ragani Ferrante, the two humans in the water, is almost nil. Dr Bhagavan Antle, who runs an animal park in South Carolina, has taught the big cats to swim for their own enjoyment, and to pull in the visitors. The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, on North Myrtle beach, has a 100,000-gallon pool with a glass wall to allow visitors a close-up view of the underwater frolics.
"At the institute we feel that swimming with the big cats gives a closer bond between the animal and their human companions," Dr Antle said. "Tigers have a natural desire and ability to swim, exceeding that of all the other big cats. It is rarely seen and we wanted to be able to present it to people so they could really get the feel of that incredible beauty and grace that a tiger has in the water.
"Tigers have modified webbing between their toes that makes their feet like flippers and they are superior swimmers. Because of those attributes we thought it was something people would love so we built this pool."
Each tiger is introduced to the pool at a few months old. Fully grown, they can weigh 500lb and measure eight feet, so after they are a year old, the staff monitor their temperaments to see if it is still safe to be in the water with them.
"I started swimming with tigers about 25 years ago," Dr Antle explained. "We found that in the water people and tigers were on a more equal footing. As they were floating around we could manipulate them more easily because they don't stand up on their back legs. When they are younger they love taking baths and then we slowly introduce them to the pool."
The centre, which is home to about 200 animals, specialises in supplying animal actors for films, such as Forrest Gump. One of their rare attractions is a liger: an 11ft-long, 900lb cross between a male lion and female tiger.