Everyone who came into our booth got that sticker. And indeed everyone who came in had touched the tiger. Myself included.
The last Saturday in June, I found myself answering the phone at 9:30 am... an almost ungodly hour for someone who works a late shift. On the other end of the phone, my friend Tyson's voice shook with excitement:
What are you doing today?
he asked me, anticipation ringing in every word. I responded that I had nothing planned.
I'll be there in 15 minutes. Be ready. We're going to work with big cats!
This was not something that I was expecting to hear. It was something that fascinated and excited me instantly. A local furniture shop brings large cats... tigers, lions, leopards and mountain lions ... up to Denver twice a year as part of their advertising campaign. It turned out that Ty had discovered they were in need of volunteers to keep things running smoothly. And he had of course thought of me: the cat woman.
We arrived at 10:00 am, both bouncing and ready to work with the cats. First, however, there was a pamphlet of dos and dont's to read. We learned things like mountain lions are the only big cats to purr, the black leopard is the deadliest land animal and tiger cubs gain 1 pound a day while they are growing. We also learned that the best way to distract a tiger when they are attacking someone is to spray them with a fire extinguisher. Not what you might call normal, everyday information. We signed our wavers and were ready to go.
I was introduced to the cubs first. Shawna, Tiana, Tess and Titan all seemed quite friendly. They were tiny, the size of household cats, and looked as if they couldn't hurt a fly. Tess rubbed up against me in a manner that I took to be friendly up until she tried grabbing at my ankles. It seems that the cubs liked testing the authority of every new person who came into their cage. I passed with flying colors as I thumped her on the nose and said, No in a firm voice.
After being greeted by the cubs, Ty and I were introduced to the bigger cats. We weren't going to actually work with them, since we were new volunteers, but we needed to get comfortable with them, just in case. There were 6 juvenile tigers between 16 and 18 months old. The standouts were Taurus, a large white Bengal tiger, Chompers, an orange Bengal with a temper, and Belladonna, a lovely orange Siberian tiger who fitted her name to a tee. Then there were the leopards, a black name Raven and a spotted named Shila. Shila took quite a shining to me and 'claimed' me every chance she got. She also posed for a picture. Finally there was the mountain lion, Tawny. She was as soft as a rabbit and one of the sweetest cats there. Her eyes were incredible.
After the formal introductions were done, we went to work. Our first job was to help people who were getting their picture taken with the 'babies'. We told them how to hold the cats, to stop running and not to fan their Polaroid for at least 5 minutes, so that the color would set. We got to pet each baby as they were brought out of their pen. And we got to answer questions. Did you know, for example, that each fully-grown tiger eats $22,000 US worth of meat in a year? Stunning.
Half way through Saturday, I walked down to visit the leopards. I saw a man walking his German Short-Hair Pointer past the cat pens. Unfortunately, so did Raven. The cat went into a crouch and started stalking the dog. It was a very good thing that there was a fence there. I felt a chill run up my spine. She was stunning, but deadly. I could understand the fear that early humans had of these beautiful carnivores.
I finished Saturday by feeding Titan. The poor thing has reached an awkward size where he has trouble closing his bottom jaw to get the suction necessary to eat, so it was my job to hold both the bottle and his mouth. We had some problems... he had a tendency to stop eating and walk around me, then come back ready for more... but he finally finished the bottle. I patted his back to burp him and then he tottled off to take a nap. Just like a human baby.
The next day, Ty and I showed up again. Our first task was one that we had been expecting and dreading, mucking out the cat's trailer. It was remarkably easier than either of us had expected. Compared to a horse, these cats were immaculate. It did take quite a while though, and we were both quite tired by the end of it all. We went and sat down to talk with the other volunteers and employees.
Sunday was much slower in terms of pictures. There was more time to walk around on our own and take pictures of the cats from behind the scenes. There was also more time to be spent with the babies. Titan, apparently remembering that I had fed him the day before, was never far away from me when I was near the cage. He would lie down right on the other side of the fence. Occasionally, he would let out a pitiful mew, trying to get my attention. When we finally got his bottle ready for him, he was practically falling all over himself with avarice and hunger. He sat right down, just like I had tried to get him to do the day before. He hissed at his siblings to get them away from his food. Then he sat down and just sucked away. When he finished, he rubbed his milk-stained face against me. I looked down into his beautiful, sleepy eyes and realized that my heart was not mine anymore. He was just that sweet.
Now, I have made the pledge to go back and volunteer every time these people come into Denver. I can only work with my Titan again in December... after that, he'll be too big. But there will be other babies to love and feed. And I want to be there for all of them. So does Ty.