The passing of one of Hawaii County’s ambassadors of good will brought an outpouring of sentiment from his Big Isle fan club.
Namaste, the zoo’s famous white tiger who died earlier this month at age 15, was, in many respects, the face of the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens. Nina Bremer, of the auxiliary Friends of the Zoo, put out a call for fond memories of the big cat to share with the public.
In asking for the animal anecdotes, Bremer said, “We’re all teary-eyed over Namaste’s passing. He was a magnificent puss! (I worked) with the Tribune-Herald to put together a ‘Happy Days Memories of Namaste’ presentation via short quotes from various folks and photos of ‘himself’ over the years.”
The tiger was the star of the zoo in the eyes of many, from keiki to kupuna. Every year, on or near his birthday, a big party was hosted at the complex on the outskirts of Hilo. Everyone was invited to stop by and watch the big kitty enjoy his special birthday bone ice cake and giant catnip pillow.
“Namaste,” kids of all ages would call out when asked for a favorite memory of a visit to the zoo. Bremer said she wanted to offer the tiger’s fans “a life span in pictures and quotes from various people.”
“I’m collecting happy memories, for an upbeat feel,” she told the Tribune-Herald. “I remember when Dirk Arthur came from Las Vegas to help celebrate Namaste’s 10th birthday. Dirk had raised Namaste from birth then donated him to our zoo when he was still a kitten. When Namaste spotted Dirk at his enclosure, he bounded over to the fence and chuffed his joy at seeing his first ‘daddy.’ There wasn’t a dry eye among us.”
Here is some of the recent feedback she received from Namaste’s fans in the wake of his death:
“One of my memories of Namaste was when Barbara Thomason and I would walk the donkeys behind his enclosure and he would try to hide his massive body behind a 4-inch concrete wall to stalk the donkeys. They didn’t seem impressed,” reminisced Lisa Matlage of the Friends of the Zoo Animal Enrichment Team.
Musician Jeri Gertz said, “I remember all the times I came to sing for Namaste’s birthday celebrations at the zoo … I used to change song lyrics for the occasion: ‘Slow down, you’re movin too fast, you want to make Namaste’s birthday last, just watchin’ our tiger in the sun, lookin’ for fun, and feelin’ zoo-ey.’”
“When Namaste was in his prime, he used to wait by the fence at his favorite spot until quite a few zoo visitors had gathered to admire him. Then, he would turn around and let out a tremendous spray,” recalled Zoo Supervisor George Saito. “The regulars could see this coming and would hurry out of the way.”
Dick Mortimer, retired zoo director, remembers Namaste as “an exceptional cat.”
“He was curious, intelligent and enjoyed attention. It took a very short time to condition him to sit when he was told. This was an asset when it was time for his yearly vaccination. It worked for four years until he figured out who administered the shot. His only reward was a back scratch. He appeared to enjoy play.
“When I would make my morning rounds to check animals, he would wait until I passed his nighthouse and then gallop after me. He definitely was a cat. If I was away for more than a week and called him to come and sit, he would snub me and pretend that I wasn’t there. But his tail twitch told me otherwise. Eventually, he would slowly come up the hill.
“I was sprayed at least twice. Once when I had a class of third-graders and called him to sit. As I knelt by the fence he quickly turned and sprayed me … then turned and looked at me. His enclosure was one of the best in any zoo and he owned it all,” said Mortimer. “I was often asked what I would do if he escaped from the enclosure. I said that I would do a lockdown of the zoo and open the enclosure doors and tell him to go home. It was his home.”
Bremer reached out to Cynthia Greenlaw, a local school official, for some keiki feedback.
“The kids all have the same memory — getting sprayed, or a sibling getting sprayed. Emma, in Grade 6, remembers that when she was younger and ‘dressed up as a tiger,’ probably for Halloween, Namaste came right over and started to spray her,” said Greenlaw, of the Paradise Hui Haumana, an ‘Ohana Learning Program of the Hawaii Academy of Arts &Science.