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A Zoo Story Or What Do You Do With Eight Siberian Tigers?

By D Magazine |

Rasputin loves Minka. Min-ka loves Rasputin. Rasputin and Minka have lived happily together in Dallas for more than a decade and together have bom and raised a sizeable family of 18 children. But Rasputin and Minka are separated now. Not because of any quarrels. Not because of any infidelity. But because of Public Law 93-205.

Minka and Rasputin are Siberian Tigers – prolific Siberian Tigers – who’ve lived for the last 11 years at the Dallas Marsalis Park Zoo. But today they’re in separate cages as a result of a law passed in 1973 by the U.S. Congress and signed by head zookeeper Richard M. Nixon.

The law, commonly known as the Endangered Species Act, had excellent intentions – to prevent animals in danger of extinction from being sold to private owners or into the fur or pet trade. To buy or sell an animal on the endangered species list, the law states, one must now obtain a permit from the Department of the Interior. Sound in theory. But in practice, it’s a bureaucratic boondoggle.

For example, the Dallas zoo wanted to purchase two Bac-trian camels from an Alberta, Canada game farm last year and applied for the permit on November 15, 1976. The permit was approved – in late June, 1977. Some zoos have waited more than a year for a permit. It works the other way too. When a zoo wants to sell animals, it must sit and wait out the permit. “The act has worked a real hardship on zoos,” says Marsalis Zoo Director Larry Calvin. “It’s already cost us half a dozen sales because we couldn’t act quickly on a buyer’s request. We’re not in the business to sell animals, but that’s the way we get funds to purchase species not currently in our zoo.”

As a result of the delayed sales, animals are beginning to pile up. The Dallas zoo now has surplus in six endangered species: eight extra Siberian tigers, four orangutans, three spotted leopards, two Dorcas gazelles, one black leopard, and an Addax antelope. Their collective worth is enormous: the tigers, for example, are valued at a thousand dollars each, the orangutans at more than five thousand each. To worsen the financial squeeze, the extra animals must of course be cared for – which means feeding. Consider the grocery bill. One Siberian tiger eats 12 pounds of meat a day. At the current price of 34¢ a pound, the annual tab for Calvin’s eight extra Siberians is almost $12,000.

So the Dallas zoo and zoos all over America have begun to do what humans do when the family gets too big for the budget: birth control. “Zoos were established partly to provide a breeding place for rare animals,” Calvin complains. “Now we’re discouraging breeding. It’s against the very nature of a zoo.”

Some zoos have surgically implanted hormones in the female to prevent conception. Another method is simply enforced celibacy. You can ask Rasputin and Minka about that. But don’t get too close. They’re feeling a little ornery these days.