No lie: That ‘tiger’ may be a liger

Times Staff Writer

Napoleon Dynamite would be so relieved. The massive feline on the loose in the Simi Valley veld was not a liger.

It was a tiger, now a very dead tiger. The mystery ended Wednesday morning, when the creature, spotted near an elementary school, was shot and killed by law enforcement officials.

Earlier in the week, Patrol Capt. Roland Takayama of the California Department of Fish and Game ignited imaginations when he speculated on a National Public Radio show that the giant cat, who had eluded officials for eight days, was “either a lion or a tiger, and some people have thrown the theory out that it’s a liger, a hybrid of the two.”

“A mix of a lion and a tiger?” asked “Day to Day” host Madeleine Brand. “It’s not like a jackalope? It’s a real thing?”

“Yeah,” said Takayama. “It’s a real thing.”

This may have come as news to fans of “Napoleon Dynamite,” the cult movie that stars the world’s nerdiest, Tater Tot-loving high school student. In one of the movie’s best loved and oft-quoted scenes, Napoleon is drawing a mythical creature with stripes, a mane and rhino-type horns down its spine. “A liger,” he explains. “It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed


The writer and director of “Napoleon Dynamite,” 25-year-old Jared Hess, said he was inspired by a strange event that took place near his hometown of Preston, Idaho, 10 years ago.

“There was a really weird commune or cult and they were breeding ligers,” he said by phone from Buenos Aires, where he was shooting a commercial. “It was called Ligertown, USA. The humane society or some animal rights group found out about the horrible conditions that the ligers were living in and they, or maybe the owners, set them free one night. There were all these ligers running around our farming community for a couple days. My brothers had a football game and they could hear all these sirens and gunfire.”

Actually, according to news reports from the time, Ligertown was a two-acre compound owned by a couple who were eventually convicted on charges of animal cruelty and creating a public nuisance. Nineteen big cats were killed and 27 others found refuge at the Wildlife Waystation in Angeles National Forest. It’s unclear how many of the animals were ligers.

“Since we shot the film in Preston,” said Hess about the Idaho set location, “of course Napoleon would be interested in what he would consider supernatural creatures or cross-breeding between different species, and the science and fantasy behind it all.”

Jon Heder, who played Napoleon, drew the liger featured in the film, after taking input from some of the local teenage extras about what a liger should look like. “He’s a pretty good artist,” said Hess of Napoleon. “He’s studied animation.” The horns on the spine, said Hess, are “battle spikes.”

No one seems to know how many real ligers there are. Public zoos don’t keep them and will barely acknowledge their existence. And they don’t occur in nature. In fact, they are a more or less deliberate act of creation, much like the mule is a deliberate pairing of the donkey and the horse. (Why it’s not called a “honkey” or a “dorse” is anyone’s guess.)

“I don’t know much about ligers,” said Takayama. “They look real stupid and goofy to me. Like a washed-out tiger or a lion that doesn’t look right, with faint stripes.”

Tell that to Tippi Hedren, caretaker of a stunning, 15-year-old liger named Patrick. Patrick, who weighs nearly 700 pounds, lives at the Shambala Preserve in Acton, having arrived there some five years ago from a private zoo in Illinois. “Everybody loves him,” said Hedren. “We treat him like he’s wrapped in cotton batting. He seems to have a great capacity for love. He’s a very benevolent animal.”

Patrick, said Hedren, has behavioral characteristics of both species. “He speaks both languages,” she said. “He roars like the lion ... and chuffs like a tiger. He has this great basso profundo chuff.”

Like all ligers, Patrick is the product of a lion father and a tiger mother. Cubs born to tiger fathers and lion mothers are called, yes, tigons. Most such hybrids are assumed to be sterile, the way mules are, but this is not always the case. Some years ago, said Hedren, she had a tigon named Noelle who lived in a compound with other cats.

“We had been told by a couple of veterinarians -- red-faced later, I might add -- that she was sterile. So we did not put Noelle on birth control. We noticed she was having a coochie-coo relationship with a tiger.”

Some months later, Noelle surprised everyone. “She gave birth under a big red bus,” said Hedren. “There was all kinds of noise and we thought a domestic cat was being murdered.” Instead, it was a big entrance for a cub, which she called a “ti-tigon” for its three-quarter tiger, one-quarter lion heritage.

Martine Colette, founder of the Wildlife Waystation, has two female ligers, one from Ligertown. “One is exceedingly shy and hates people. The other is as friendly as a dog.” Lions, she said, are social creatures. Tigers are not. “You can see a little behavior of each in both of mine.”

Although ligers exist, there does not appear to be any such creature as a liger expert. The San Diego Zoo’s cat experts said through a spokeswoman that they didn’t have anything to say about ligers. The director of conservation and science at the Fort Worth Zoo would not even speculate about why anyone would cross a lion and a tiger. “Our goal,” said Tarren Wagener, a lion specialist, “is to preserve the species.”

However, Ron Tilson, director of conservation for the Minnesota Zoo, was less reticent. Creating a liger, or a tigon, he said, “is the production of freaks by people who have freaky minds. It’s abominable to think that this sort of thing is somehow made into a movie or a cult icon when, in fact, what it represents is these dirty little sideshows in circuses with bearded ladies or two-headed dogs. This is not about nature ... it’s about mischievous lowlifes.”

Lions and tigers are biologically similar enough that they can mate and have done so in captivity. In the wild, their paths don’t generally cross.

No one is able to estimate with authority a liger’s lifespan. It seems to be shorter than those of a lion (up to 25 years in captivity) or a tiger (up to 20 years in captivity). “We haven’t had them around long enough to know what their longevity might be,” said Colette.

In any case, plenty of people would have no idea what they were looking at even if they came face to face with a liger.

“What I have found is that the average person wouldn’t know a lion from a tiger,” said Colette. “And I regret to tell you that. Watching tours coming through this facility, you wouldn’t believe the number of people who look at the tiger and say, ‘Look at the lion!’ ”