Australia Zoo is one of very few places around the world that has human interaction with its tigers. Our facility has been built to hold up to 14 tigers and to accommodate a tiger’s every need.
Australia Zoo is world-renowned for its conservation efforts, as well as for its spectacularly clean, functional, attractive and well-designed animal enclosures. In fact, all the proceeds collected by the Zoo, including admission takings, are all put back into the Zoo. This is to ensure great quality of life for our animals.
Here at Australia Zoo, the tigers live in a stress-free environment with a great variety of fresh food, regular health checks, and constant enrichment provided by interaction with the big cat handlers. The tigers’ routine is always changing to keep the tigers from getting complacent, as well as the handlers adapting to the tigers’ behaviours and requirements.
All of our tigers have been trained and conditioned to be on leash since the age of eight weeks. Leash training assists with tasks that are performed daily, such as bush walks, park walks, guest walks, photo sessions, movie work or simply transferring tigers from one exhibit to another.
Leash training is part of the tigers’ enrichment program. Going for walks on leash is as much for them as it is for us. There are lots of different smells and different things to observe because it is a different environment. Going for a relaxing walk in the park is one of the tigers’ favourite parts of the day. Each tiger is taken out on a walk at least once a day for approximately 45 minutes, which also gives the public a chance to view them at the Zoo.
Our tigers have been trained and conditioned to participate in guest walks since they were four months old; this is a very important part of their training, because not all tigers will feel comfortable with guest walks, whilst others will enjoy meeting with our guests. This is where our handlers try to adapt to each individual tiger’s behaviours, and if need be, some tigers won’t be used for the walks.
The guest walks and photo sessions are performed to raise money for tiger conservation, as well as to offer the public the once-in-a-lifetime experience of walking with a tiger.
Another fun aspect of working with tigers is that the handlers get to play with toys!
Playing with toys for the tigers is very important for stimulation and enrichment, as well as the relationship between the handlers and tigers.
Various toys are used to encourage the tigers to jump, climb and chase. This is the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the natural behaviours that tigers would display in the wild. This involves the handlers running around with toys as the tigers chase them down. But the key to getting their attention is to have a toy that moves easily. One of the most popular, and easy to make, is a rubbish bag tied on the end of a stick. Shake it and it makes noise, it flows easily on the ground or in the air- and watch as they leap into the air at full flight, quite impressive!
Toy sessions are performed daily with the handlers and tigers, and are hugely beneficial to the relationship between the two. The tigers need to have respect for the handlers, as well as the handlers having respect for the tigers, to keep a safe environment around us.
Usually, our tigers like to combine toys with the water! Splashing around chasing a toy, or tackling each other, they have an absolute ball. We don’t know who has more fun, the tigers or the handlers!
Pool work is one of the most dangerous things that we do with our tigers here at Australia Zoo, but tigers absolutely love the water!
Tigers have adapted to the sweltering heat of tropical Asia by swimming in waterholes, lakes, streams and swamps in their native lands in order to cool off.
Whether it is jumping in the water after toys and handlers or having a relaxing afternoon swim, the tigers at Australia Zoo spend most of their day in the pool.
This also furthers the bond between the handlers and our tigers, as the tigers are learning the handlers’ limitations and rules. Tigers love the water because it keeps them cool, so once the tigers are wet, they start to get a little silly and run amok!
This is a very important activity for the handlers as this kind of interaction will continue for the rest of the tigers’ lives, so once fully grown they will know what is expected of them when it’s time to have some fun!
How do you give a tiger a treat? Well, besides food, the answer is… milk. Tigers, like all cats, are lactose intolerant but are able to receive small amounts of milk (i.e. around 200ml a day), just like the normal milk you drink at home.
When the cubs were being hand-raised, they were on a milk formula called Woombaroo. The cubs would receive approximately four to five milk feeds a day. As time went by and the cubs continued to grow, the milk feeds were decreased and the amounts were increased.
Milk feeds, besides being a treat, are used to help display some of the tigers’ natural behaviours that can be seen in the wild, such as sit-ups and rises.
Sit-ups can be used for a tiger to smell scents, or to find their prey when in long foliage. The rise, shown to the right, is seen when the tigers are stretching up against a tree or to mark their territory, which also exhibits how long of body the tiger is.
Another reason the handlers use milk feeds is to assist in any medical procedures that are required. These procedures may include weighing the tigers, checking their temperature or examining their coat for any abnormalities or tag marks. Obviously the tiger would be very much interested in the milk, allowing the handler to perform regular health checks without causing any grief or stress to the tiger.
A well known fact about the tiger is that they like to sleep a lot. In fact, 18 hours of a tiger’s day is spent sleeping. This will continue into adulthood for the rest of their lives – and what a life, sleeping for more than 75 percent of the day!
Tigers are known to be crepuscular animals, meaning that they do most of their hunting and activity at dawn and dusk. So during the hottest part of the day, they spend their time relaxing in the pool or sleeping.
For a handler, when a tiger wants to sleep this can be the toughest part of the job; the handlers take a seat as the tiger rests its head in the handler’s lap and goes to sleep! (That’s the tiger, not the handler!)
Tigers do enjoy the comfort and company of the handlers, but sometimes they like to have their space too, opting to curl up with another tiger or in a shady spot under a tree.