By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
He may be slowing down in his old age, but at 15 years old, Namaste, the white Bengal tiger who resides at the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens, remains the belle of the ball.
“He’s always been the star of the zoo,” said director Pam Mizuno. “That hasn’t changed. No matter what animals come and go, he’s basically our big attraction.”
Namaste weighed a mere 80 pounds when he arrived at the zoo at eight months old. Now, he weighs in at around 350 pounds, and that’s 50 pounds shy of his prime weight of about 400, she said.
“He’s very laid back, now that he’s older,” Mizuno said.
Bengal tigers in captivity typically live to be up to 20 years old, she said.
“He’s been having health problems for the last year, ever since breaking his femur. He does everything very slowly.”
It’s a bit of a mystery how the big cat managed to fracture its leg sometime in the last year, she explained. Zoo staff believe he may have slipped while walking up or down the hill between the area where he sleeps and the pond in the center of his enclosure.
“It can get muddy and slippery when it rains a lot,” she said. “And it’s a steep hill.”
Such injuries are difficult to treat, and zookeepers had to keep him confined to his nighttime enclosure for several months while they waited for the break to heal. Only recently was he allowed back out into his enclosure, and the zoo has had to fence off access to the pond to keep him from reinjuring himself.
Such a big animal will naturally have trouble with the heat, and now that he can’t get down to the pond to cool himself off, Namaste’s enclosure has been outfitted with a small device to spray mist on the tiger.
“It’s been a rough year for him,” Mizuno said. “But, he’s managing. He’s bounced back a few times, and he’s managing to keep being Namaste.”
When he was only a few months old, Namaste was given to the zoo by Las Vegas magician Dirk Arthur, who specializes in using large cats in his act, said Nina Bremer, with the Friends of the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens.
“It’s kind of a sweet story. On Namaste’s 10th birthday, we brought Dirk over to see Namaste,” she said. “The day he came to see Namaste at the zoo, just before the park opened around 9, he walked up to Namaste … and Namaste spotted him and ran over. Nine or 10 years later, and he (Namaste) remembered him (Arthur). He was chuffing, which is something they do when they get excited. He (Namaste) followed (Arthur) around. He wanted him to come in and play with him.”
Why didn’t Arthur keep Namaste for his act?
Likely, she said, because it takes a special kind of temperament for a tiger to work the strip in Vegas.
“Not all cats are suited to go on stage,” Bremer said. “They have to be hand raised all their lives, and they need to keep a certain respect for personal safety.”
Despite not fitting the bill for Arthur’s needs, Namaste is a “gentle soul,” folks at the zoo say.
“No one is allowed to go in the cage with him, but we do interact with him from outside the cage,” Mizuno said. He’ll lie up against the fence, and we’re able to push a brush duct-taped to a pole to groom him. He recognizes all the keepers, and he likes some more than others. He recognizes everybody’s voice.”
There’s one person who definitely does not get along with, however.
“The vet technician,” Mizuno said. “He recognizes the vet technician because he can’t stand him. You know, it’s the only time I hear him make scary tiger sounds is when the vet tech is here. He gives out a roar that shakes you to the bones.”
On Saturday, the public can help celebrate Namaste’s 15th birthday at a special bash thrown at the zoo in his honor.
Running from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m., the special event will feature face painting, games and treats.
At 9:30 a.m., Namaste will be presented with a special bone ice cake, followed at 10 with a gift of a catnip pillow.
Admission is free.
For more information, visit hilozoo.com.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.