In November 2006, I had the most amazing experience with a cub encounter at Zion Wildlife Gardens in Whangarei. It was something I've always wanted to do - cuddle one of the big cat species, but never thought I would be able to do it in New Zealand.
I happened to be in Whangarei this day for something completely different, but decided to inquire about the wildlife gardens and try and get out there. I didn't have a car, and the gardens aren't very central, however, I ordered a taxi instead and paid $30 for the ride. That's how keen I was.
I was fairly shocked with the prices/fees to see the park. It was $60 to do a guided tour (you can't see the park without a guide so this was the cheapest option), and then $200 for a cub encounter. Gulp. However, I realise that these prices, although expensive, are needed to help feed the animals and run the park. Big cats aren't exactly cheap to feed, and they do eat considerably more than a domestic one!! The owner Craig Busch is making a huge contribution to the gene pool and conservation of these wonderful and rare animals, so one does need to put the fees into perspective.
I tossed up my options - guided tour or cub encounter. I finally decided on the $200 cub encounter, deciding that this was the best as it would cost me that much at least, to hire out a photographic studio, and here I was going to get the opportunity to photograph the animals I love the most. I was not disappointed.
Khan was simply beautiful. A rare endangered white tiger cub. Feisty and playful. Soft to touch. His head seemed way out of proportion to the rest of his body. Piercing blue eyes. Dopey because I woke him up to play. Cross-eyed. I sat down next to him, and he promptly jumped at my boob and bit it. You can read about it here, when I wrote about a few weeks ago. I was surprised at how big his paws were, and those claws on his paws were large. I was glad he was still comparatively little!
Along with my total deafness, I also have a total lack of balance. This is one of the reasons I have never worked at zoo's or wildlife parks, as I would be more of a hindrance than a help. However, right from a child, I have read every non-fiction wildlife book that I could lay my hands on, and been right through the zoology section of every library near me. My knowledge is quite extensive, and I sometimes get annoyed with my disabilities which stop me from being a vet, or working with wild animals.
I discussed this with the ranger that was with me in Khan's enclosure and he agreed with me that animals can sense when one is weaker, particularly big cats. There is no way I could walk the adult cats in Zion Wildlife gardens for this very same reason. The ranger stood between myself and Khan while I was photographing him, for fear that Khan, being the feisty 'kitten' he was would launch himself of the embankment into my arms like he was known to do. With my balance, I would have ended up on the ground with him on top of me. Then the three lion cubs, also in hte same enclosure, would have thought that was fair game to play too, and I would have difficulty getting up. All sounds loads of fun, but having 4 cubs, the size of large labrador dogs wanting to play would be slightly tricky! At the same time as photographing Khan, the ranger was keeping an eye on the lion cubs behind me as well, as they are also prone to come up from behind and bat your legs to knock you over in fun!! All four cubs behaved impeccably for their photoshoot.
Sadly, just tonight, I have just heard that Khan had to be put down for an irrepairable birth defect that made him very sick. I just feel so sad, but also so pleased I had the chance to cuddle this absolute character.
Khan, Rest in Peace.