In the early morning hours of October 25, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Animal Curator Travis Vineyard and Associate Animal Curator Jen DeGroot had just finished a long road trip from Chicago. They arrived at the Zoo with a very special delivery that was almost two years in the making. Members of the animal care team met Vineyard and DeGroot to welcome the Zoo’s newest resident; an Amur tiger named Zoya.
The process of getting Zoya to Cleveland began back in 2016 when the Zoo’s new tiger habitat, Rosebrough Tiger Passage, officially opened. At this time, the Zoo had two older tigers in the new exhibit, Klechka and Dasha, who would likely live out the rest of their lives in Cleveland.
With newly expanded space and two older tigers came new opportunities. The animal care team was able to examine the tiger collection as a whole.
“When Rosebrough Tiger Passage came on board, we asked AZA to set us up for a breeding recommendation so we can contribute to the global population of tigers,” says Vineyard.
The first step in this process was securing a young male tiger that would be able to breed future females.
The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) maintains Species Survival Programs (SSPs) for more than 500 species, with the goal of managing and conserving a typically threatened or endangered species. SSPs coordinate the breeding and transfer of animals between AZA-accredited zoos to ensure healthy and genetically diverse populations.
A SSP recommendation directed attention overseas to young Amur tiger named Hector. Coming from Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster, England, Hector arrived in Cleveland in March of 2017.
“Hector had a calm and confident demeanor when he arrived from Yorkshire Wildlife Park, and he remains that way today, which will hopefully prove to be beneficial with a potential mate,” says Vineyard.
Shortly after Hector’s arrival, the animal care team directed their attention to the next step in the process, acquiring a female to match with Hector. To everyone’s surprise, a recommendation from the SSP again directed attention overseas, this time to Odense Zoo in Denmark.
Zoya, born at Odense Zoo in 2015, was the most genetically viable match for Hector, which means if they could have tiger cubs it would help sustain the population for these endangered animals in zoos. The Zoo’s team quickly went to work.
Moving any animal from one Zoo to another requires a lot of careful work and preparation. Planning to transport a 300-pound tiger overseas was another story in itself.
“We knew it would be a long process but the team was willing to put in the work in order to get her here,” says Vineyard.
There was a lot that needed to be done before Zoya would make the long journey to the United States. After months of paperwork, permits and communication with the staff at Odense Zoo, the time had finally come to get Zoya to Cleveland.
Being an endangered species, the movement of an Amur tiger needed the approval of CITES, which stands for Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species. CITES is a global agreement by a collection of countries that are working to limit commerce and trade of endangered species. Because of this, Zoya could only enter the United States through certain ports, Chicago being one of them.
“The goal here was to minimize the amount of travel time for the animal,” says Vineyard, “it took time to find the best flight at the right port.”
Vineyard and Associate Animal Curator Jen DeGroot, were there to greet Zoya right off the plane. They then loaded her crate into their van and began the six-hour drive back to Cleveland. When asked what it was like to road trip with a live tiger Vineyard says, “it was quite the experience.”
After her highly anticipated arrival to Cleveland, Zoya spent 30 days of quarantine in the Sarah Allison Steffee Center for Veterinary Medicine. During her time in quarantine, the animal care team watched Zoya with a close eye to get her used to her new surroundings, adjust her diet to be similar to the tigers in Cleveland, and gather data about her health and personality.
When her time in quarantine came to an end, the Zoo’s veterinary team performed the tiger’s exit exam. Zoya was then transferred directly to Rosebrough Tiger Passage to explore her new home.
“First and foremost we want to focus on getting her adjusted to the new space, routine and her keepers,” says Vineyard. Since entering Rosebrough Tiger Passage in December, Zoya has been slowly introduced to her new space with access to several of the yards and the overhead tunnels.
“Like all cats, tigers are a very cautious species and it’s normal to see her acting reserved or timid during this adjustment phase,” says Vineyard.
According Vineyard, the first hurdle to overcome was acclimating to a new diet. He jokes that her new “American” diet would be a newly acquired taste.
The next was allowing her to adjust to the presence of male tigers, Klechka and Hector. “It took her a few days to settle in and know definitively where they were as well as where they couldn’t be in her new surroundings,” says Vineyard.
Her introduction to Cleveland was at a good time. Native to the colder, mountainous regions of Asia, Amur tigers welcome the snow and colder weather. Zoya has been out most of the winter, and can even be heard producing loud roars and vocalizations from atop the rock features in the front yard.
Because tigers are solitary animals, Zoya and Hector will inhabit separate yards. The animal care team will be carefully watching how the two animals engage between the mesh separating their yards.
While keepers are observing her adjustment, they are also watching her engagement with Hector. Rolling on the ground or rubbing up against the mesh are signals that it may be time to put them together for breeding.
“As these two animals are new to one another, there is no telling how they’ll react to the other’s presence,” says Vineyard. A lot of waiting and observing will occur as the animal care team determines when a breeding may occur.
On a positive and predictive note, the animal care team has seen promising behaviors between Zoya and Hector. “They both seem interested in each other, giving every indication that they will be compatible as a breeding pair,” says Vineyard.
The animal care team is excited and hopeful for success and for now, everyone is happy that Zoya is home in Cleveland.
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