Mik's kicks: Soccer game has aging tiger acting like kitten

February 12, 2016 - 8:50am

Oregon Zoo's tiger enrichment program keeps elderly Mikhail active and on the ball

He might look like a playful kitten chasing around a ball of yarn, but this cat is a 310-pound Amur tiger with paws the size of dinner plates. Mikhail is one of the oldest Amur tigers in the world, and the Oregon Zoo's animal-care experts have been working hard to keep the 17-year-old active as he ages.

"Just like housecats, tigers sleep the majority of the day," said keeper Celess Zinda. "But especially now that he's older, it's important for Mik to get enough activity and movement to keep his joints limber — and the way we make sure that happens is through play."

Zinda and the other keepers have been training the big cat to play "soccer": batting and chasing a big plastic ball along the floor of the moat surrounding his habitat.

"He really seems to enjoy this activity," Zinda said. "And clearly he's in 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 said the animal-care staff frequently adds new enrichment items into Mikhail's environment to help keep him active and encourage natural behaviors. This is especially important now that he's in his golden years, she said.

"Mik's definitely getting up there in years," added zoo curator Amy Cutting, who oversees the zoo's tiger area. "The life expectancy for Amur tigers in the wild is around 10 to 15 years, and Mik's turning 18 this year, so he's considered very elderly. But thankfully, he's still active and playful. Our keepers work hard to make sure he stays healthy and engaged, and this game is just another example of that."

Cutting notes that while Mikhail is doing well, his wild counterparts are imperiled by habitat loss and poaching: Fewer than 500 Amur tigers 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 these critically endangered cats. The Oregon Zoo also supports the Tiger Conservation Campaign, which works to curb poaching of Amur tigers 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 the tigers.

People here can help protect tigers and other threatened wildlife through Small Actions, an easy-to-use online tool launched by the zoo this month that empowers everyone to become a wildlife defender. For more information about Amur tiger conservation and ways to help, visit the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance's website. ALTA is an international coalition of organizations working for the conservation of Amur tigers and leopards in the wild.