Zoo Uproar : Tiger Upstages Children Competing in a Loudest-Growl Contest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was no contest.

A real tiger upstaged three dozen schoolchildren Friday when the youngsters decorated their faces with fake cat whiskers and took part in a "Roar-a-Thon" competition at the Los Angeles Zoo.

The kids were judged on who "roared" the loudest. The gruffest growlers won the right to present a $50,000 check to the zoo in a ceremony staged by a pet food company in front of the tiger compound.

But the 400-pound cat that lives in the compound proved he's no publicity hound.

When he emerged from his den, the tiger took quick offense at the noise coming from the front of his fenced, 50-foot-wide, jungle-like environment.

He glared at the children. Then he glared at the loudspeaker the pet food company had erected above the enclosure's watery moat.

The part-Siberian, part-Bengal tiger bared his fangs. Then he let loose with a deep roar that was louder and fiercer than the sound effects in any Tarzan movie. The children screamed.

With a leap, the tiger raced across his enclosure and lunged toward the loudspeaker. He stopped at the edge of the moat and roared again. The children screamed again.

"I'm outta here!" yelled a fourth-grader as she turned and fled.

"I've never heard a tiger roar," said another Roar-a-Thon contestant, Mary Abler, 8, of Simi Valley as she hurriedly followed.

Zoo curator Michael Dee ordered the loudspeaker removed. John Giurini, a publicity man for Purina Cat Foods, quickly took it down as the tiger paced angrily and watched.

Giurini said the company has donated $50,000 to each of six zoos across the United States this summer to help support survival programs for big-cat species. Actress and environmental activist Morgan Fairchild has represented the company at each of the Roar-a-Thon check presentations.

"In Tampa, three tiger cubs that were four weeks old chewed on me," Fairchild said, glancing over her shoulder toward the 9 1/2-foot animal, which was looking her way. "In Cincinnati, a full-grown cheetah let me pet him."

As a way of saying thanks for the $50,000, Los Angeles zoo officials said the tiger will be renamed "Morgan." It had been called Sher Khan, from Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book," since being donated to the zoo about two months ago by the Wildlife Waystation.

Martine Colette, director of the Waystation, said the animal was confiscated from a Palm Springs man about 2 1/2 years ago by wildlife officers. The tiger was taught to socialize with other cats while at the San Fernando Valley animal compound, she said.

Despite his name change, Morgan will have the last word, said Birdie Foster, tiger keeper at the zoo.

"He eats Nebraska Feline Diet," Foster said. "We give him a five-pound loaf twice a day. He won't eat Purina."

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