Trick or meat: zoo tiger celebrates Halloween birthday

October 28, 2014 - 5:32pm

Aging Amur tiger Mikhail will receive pumpkins, other treats at 10:31 on 10/31

What do tigers want for their birthday? Meat!

The Oregon Zoo's aging Amur tiger Mikhail turns 16 this Friday, and keepers plan to treat the big cat to a Halloween-themed birthday bounty: black and orange crepe paper, a cardboard "pumpkin patch," assorted party favors and, of course, lots of pumpkins — some carved into jack-o'-lanterns and stuffed with delicious carnivore snacks. Mik — looking appropriate for the season in his customary orange and black stripes — will receive his goodies at 10:31 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 31.

Members of the zoo's volunteer enrichment team created the holiday-themed birthday items, while keepers and zoo veterinarians planned the contents. The enrichment items — all made from nontoxic materials — are designed to encourage the tiger's natural sensory, predatory and exploratory behaviors.

For visitors, the zoo's Oct. 31 festivities will also include a Halloween party for little tykes, presented in partnership with Metro Parent's PDX Kids Calendar, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the zoo's Tiger Plaza. Kids can make paper crowns with Portland Child Art Studio, have their pictures taken by Velour Photography with a not-so-scary tiger, and create animal masks with the Craft Factory.

Mikhail was born on Halloween 1998 at the John Ball Zoological Garden in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved to the Oregon Zoo on Sept. 12, 2000.

"Mik's definitely getting up there in years," said animal curator Amy Cutting, who oversees the zoo's tiger area. "The median life expectancy for male Amur tigers is 16, and Mik's right there now, so he's considered elderly. But thankfully he's still healthy, and our keepers work hard to make sure he stays active and engaged."

Cutting said the animal-care staff frequently adds new enrichment items into Mikhail's environment to encourage natural behaviors. This is especially important as he enters his golden years, she said.

Recently, keepers have been training Mik to play "soccer" — batting and chasing a big plastic Boomer ball along the floor of the moat surrounding his habitat — to help keep the 320-pound cat active as he ages.

"He really seems to enjoy this activity," said keeper Celess Zinda. "And clearly he's in a good shape for an old guy. One of our veterinarians was watching Mik the other day and marveling at how active and playful he is for a cat his age."

Zinda notes that while Mikhail is doing well, his wild counterparts are imperiled by habitat loss and poaching: Fewer than 500 are believed to remain in their home range. The Amur tiger species derives its name from the Amur River, which runs through the region of southeast Russia to which this subspecies is native.

North American and European zoos are participating in coordinated breeding programs to help preserve Amur tigers. The Oregon Zoo also supports the Tiger Conservation Campaign, which works to curb poaching through more effective patrolling and monitoring techniques. In addition, the campaign supports training for Russian veterinarians and research to determine the source of a canine distemper virus that afflicts these critically endangered cats.