The zookeeper with tigers in his bedroom
Keeping tigers at home isn't new. Siegfred and Roy housed up to 36 of them in their modest Las Vegas mansion and I had a colleague at a job in London who posed her tabby cat, Tigger, in front of miniature picket fences to create the illusion of a tiger in her backyard.
What does make Prime's Tigers about the House worth watching is the Kardashian-esque reality TV style in which it's filmed. Australia Zoo's tiger expert, Giles Clark, raises two Sumatran tiger cubs in his suburban Queensland home. Clark, his wife and son took in the two feline dossers for five months and also accommodated the constant presence of a camera crew. "There were times when you think 'please put the camera down', but of course they couldn't cause that was often the best stuff," Clark admits.
The tigers, Spot and Stripe, were taken in by Clark at birth, then hand-reared before returning to the zoo at 20 weeks old. Clark says that while he was incredibly lucky to have this experience, there were still hard times. "It would be 2 o'clock in the morning, you've put your fifth load of washing on for that evening, you're about to head to bed and you'd hear 'waaaaaa' and they're hungry again and you're thinking 'will this ever stop', but I would still do it all over again in a heartbeat."
The cubs needed to be raised close to Clark in order to form that bond that enables him to handle them over their lifetime. The easy relationship Clark has with all the tigers on screen is no fluke: "They're not tame and not domesticated, that's come from hundreds of hours of building a close relationship."
Clark says that keeping it quiet from the neighbours and avoiding any escapes was extremely challenging, "The tigers figured out how to open door handles, when they wanted attention you'd hear boom, boom, boom at the door and next minute the handle's turning and they're in the room."
There are fewer than 500 Sumatran tigers left, making them the rarest of the big cats, and Clark predicts the entire wild population will be wiped out within a decade. It's a horrifying prophecy, but with their body parts and bones being in high demand for traditional medicines, extinction appears be the only end to the poaching. "The tiger has been voted numerous times as the world's most popular animal, but in the last 150 years we've all but eradicated it," he says.
The agenda behind the show, for Clark at least, is to raise awareness of the tigers' plight, and showcase the zoo's efforts to regenerate the tiger population. "Spot and Stripe's mum and aunt are a new founding bloodline, so they are extremely important and are very highly ranked (by the global breeding program)."
While none of the zoo's tigers are currently expecting, Clark is eager to play nursemaid all over again: "I've got the candles and Barry White lined up ready to get them in the right frame of mind."
This hands-on approach is key to Clark's success with the Tigers, and their happiness in captivity. He says one of the highlights of the tiger's day is their daily walk: "We take them out on a leash, much the same as you do a dog, for a walk in the hundreds of acres of bushland surrounding the zoo, letting them explore new territories."
This taste of freedom for the tigers will never equate to a release into the wild, says Clark: "no tiger in captivity will ever be let back into the wild, because we could never do it to an extent that it will save the tiger population."
He admits that in an ideal world no tiger would be kept in a zoo, but he's adamant the captive tigers perform an important role to educate, and to date have raised almost AUD $2million for organisations that support tigers in the wild, "If it wasn't for Spot and Stripe and all their other stripy friends that we have, we couldn't have provided that support".
Whilst unappealing it would be to have a camera crew sleeping on your lounge floor for five months, Clark is clearly willing to go to any lengths to promote the plight of these big cats. "I will do everything I can, while I still have breath in my body, to make sure we have tigers in the future."
Tigers about the House starts Wednesday, June 10, 7.30pm on Prime.
- Sunday Star Times