Zoo-goers were saddened Thursday by the death of Namaste, longtime star attraction at Hilo’s Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo &Gardens.
Clayton Honma, county Parks and Recreation director, said the 15-year-old Bengal tiger was euthanized Thursday morning because of complications from hip dysplasia.
“It’s a sad day when we lose our main attraction,” Honma said Thursday afternoon. “He meant so much to us. He was on our logo.
“Although he broke his leg last year, his hip dysplasia is a big reason why he was not mobile for his age. He was 15 years old, quite old for a tiger. He had a hard time. His quality of life and his mobility was terrible already.
“The decision was made because his eating was very erratic at this point. We had to put food in front of him. He couldn’t move around to get out of his feeding cage.”
Namaste was given to the zoo in 1999 when he was only a few months old by Dirk Arthur, a Las Vegas magician who uses big cats in his act.
Kiel Brende and Wailani Gonsalves, of Waa Waa, took their sons, Keahi, 3, and Kahuwai, 1, to the zoo Thursday afternoon.
“The kids love it. It’s one of the things we look forward to when we come into town,” Brende said. “Now that it’s gone, we’re gonna miss it.”
Added Gonsalves: “That’s why we all come here, to see the tiger. And the last few times we came, we just saw him lying down inside the cage. He looked really sad and sick. His fur looked dirty and he looked really skinny. His tail was flicking around but he wasn’t moving other than that.”
She said she remembered Namaste as a healthy big cat.
“A little kid threw his backpack into the tiger’s cage when Keahi was about 6 months old and we saw him rolling around, ripping the backpack to shreds like a kitten with a ball of yarn,” she said.
Eden Aken, who was visiting the zoo with her 14-year-old daughter, Lexie, said she came here “almost every day” during her daughter’s childhood.
“It’s really sad,” Aken said, tears welling visibly in her eyes.
“Namaste used to come when she called him,” Lexie said.
Scott and Vera Milligan, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, sat on the bench fashioned in Namaste’s likeness at the entrance to the zoo with their three children — Carina, 10; Adam, 8; and Ryan, 6.
“It’s sad to think about. You could tell it’s affected people here,” Scott Milligan said. “We could tell he was a big part of this zoo and a big reason for coming. But actually, after going around the zoo, there’s many, many things here.”
Vera Milligan said one could “feel the love in the air” for the beloved Bengal.
“He had a really nice, big beautiful enclosure,” she said. “I’ve seen some other tiger enclosures and they were really small. You can tell he was treated special.”
Lani Merck, who’s worked at the zoo’s gift shop for 10 years, called it “a sad day.”
“But it had to be done because he couldn’t get up. I know he’ll be missed,” she said.
Honma said Namaste’s handlers “took special care of him.”
“They used to use sticks so they could scratch his back and scratch him all over, even while he was ill,” he said. “They changed his diet up a little bit towards the end. At the end, they were feeding him rabbit and some other proteins, not the beef and chicken he used to have. I don’t know if he had any particular favorite, but he liked having the rabbit mixed into his diet.”
Namaste’s daily afternoon feedings drew a crowd, and annual birthday bashes were gala events at the zoo. His final party was in September, and he was given a special bone ice cake and a catnip pillow.
Honma said Namaste was buried inside the tiger enclosure and a monument will soon mark the spot. Asked about a memorial service, he replied: “I don’t think so.”
Arrangements are being made to procure another tiger for the zoo, Honma said. The zoo will make some renovations to the tiger habitat to accommodate a younger animal.
“Even on a day like this, when we are sad that our main attraction has to go, it provides us an opportunity to provide our community with something new in the community, something that they can look forward to. So, it’s bittersweet.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.