Opening Day nears for tigers at Detroit Zoo as new habitat unveiled
Ron Kagan talks about two-year-old tiger brothers, Nikolai and Aleksei, and their new home, the 3.5-million Devereaux Tiger Forest at the Detroit Zoo The Detroit News
Royal Oak — Like most siblings, Nikolai and Aleksei have distinct personalities.
Nikolai is more reticent, peeking out from behind a stone wall.
Aleksei boldly strides past his brother, stretches out on the grass and stares down the humans holding cameras and notebooks across an 18-foot-deep divide separating the two species on Thursday.
It is the day before the public unveiling for these two new tigers at the Detroit Zoo, and the animals are settling into their new $3.5 million habitat: the Devereaux Tiger Forest.
The renovated and expanded habitat was made possible in part by a $1 million gift from the Richard C. Devereaux Foundation. It is filled with trees, a waterfall, two pools, a revamped catnap cave (yes, that’s a thing), and it occupies one acre — quadruple the size of the former tiger digs — in the zoo’s Asian Forest. It is located across from the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest.
But unlike their baseball-playing counterparts before their Opening Day, these two-year-old tigers are totally chill.
Zoo executive director Ron Kagan attributes it to the fact that everything is brand new to them.
“The tigers are quite intimidated by how big the space is, but they don’t just need the space, they need the complexity,” Kagan said. “They see the people here, and they’re curious.”
Kagan said the Amur tigers, formerly known as Siberian tigers, arrived a few months ago from the Columbus Zoo, where they were born. Nikolai, the shy one, weighs 365 pounds, while Aleksei is a bit trimmer, at 335 pounds.
They now join Kisa, a female Amur tiger that was born at the Detroit Zoo in 2003, and at 16, is considered a senior.
But don’t expect Kisa to join Nikolai and Aleksei for a “welcome to the zoo” party.
They will only see each other in passing. Nikolai and Aleksei will stay in their territory, and Kisa will stay in hers.
But Kisa will be able to enjoy the new habitat when they swap places on occasion.
Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer at the Detroit Zoo, said: “they’ll time share the space.”
That’s because tigers, unlike lions, are not really social animals, says Carter.
“The two brothers grew up together, but you don’t find tigers in groups, except during mating season,” he said. “Tigers don’t live in social groups in the wild, and they don’t embrace strange tigers, unlike lions, who live in prides.”
And there are not many left.
The Amur tiger is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
“I think there are only about 500 left in the world,” Kagan said.”Obviously, with all of our animals, we want them to really thrive, not simply be on display.”
The space was created to resemble the tigers’ native landscape of far eastern Russia, and it also includes elevated vantage points, open spaces and wooded areas.
In addition to the Devereaux Foundation, support also was provided by the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation and many individual donors, as well as contributions from the 2017 “Giving Zoo Day” fundraising campaign and proceeds from this year’s “Sunset at the Zoo” Asian Forest gala.
Addressing the few numbers of Amur tigers again, Kagan said, “hopefully, visitors will come away knowing about the plight of the wild tigers. The predictions are pretty scary in terms of the rates of extinction.”