San Diego Zoo Safari Park's new tiger enclosure brings big cats closer to fans

San Diego Zoo Safari Park's new tiger enclosure brings big cats closer to fans
Lori Gallo, senior animal keeper at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, gets nose-to-nose with a 2-year-old Sumatran tiger in the new Tull Family Tiger Trail exhibit. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times)

Lori Gallo is feeding chunks of beef heart to Conrad, who is 2 years old and possessed of a piercing stare and incisors that could — make that, would — rip you apart if given a chance.

"Conrad is a real tiger, from Day One," said Gallo, a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. "He has a very intimidating, intense personality — unlike his brother ,who is more calm and collected."


The park has had Sumatran tigers since the late 1970s.

However, to get a glimpse of the tigers, a visitor had to be lucky and hope that the animals were not hiding in the bush when the visitors' tram passed overhead.

Over the Memorial Day weekend all that changed with the opening of new digs for the park's six Sumatrans. The 5.2-acre Tull Family Tiger Trail cost $19.5 million and was 14 months in the making.

Visitors can now get within inches of the tigers — thanks to tempered glass and other safety features.

Children can play tug-a-war with a tiger, with the animal grasping a rope in its teeth and the child, safe behind the glass, grabbing the rope by hand. A children's play area has a log step, rope climbs and a slide, part of a simulated logging camp (rampant logging is destroying the tigers' habitat in their homeland).

The modern visitor to zoos and animal parks demands a close-up view of the animals. Numerous projects — like the new Rainforest of the Americas at the Los Angeles Zoo — are determined to provide that immediacy.

Safari Park keepers hope the new Tiger Trail will lead to greater public support for conservation projects aimed at forestalling the decline of the Sumatran tiger, considered the most endangered of six subspecies of tigers.

An estimated 400 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, with the number decreasing each year because of poaching and deforestation on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. There are about 350 Sumatran tigers in 55 zoos and parks (the Los Angeles Zoo has a female Sumatran).

The trend line in the wild is ominous: By century's end, the Sumatran tiger may be extinct in the wild. The forest is being cleared to produce palm oil, used in cosmetics and candy.

To rally public support for captive breeding and other conservation projects, the public needs to know of the Sumatrans' plight, said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals at the Safari Park.

"If you want to develop conservation projects, you need to get where guests, members of the public, can see the animals," he said. "It's absolutely necessary."

Thomas Tull, chairman and chief executive of Legendary Pictures, whose latest movie is "Godzilla," contributed $9 million toward the project. Tull is on the foundation board of the Zoological Society of San Diego.

"We simply cannot let these magnificent animals move toward the brink of extinction," Tull said in a statement.

The zoo is involved in two conservation projects in Sumatra to aid the tiger: at Way Kambas National Park and Gunung Leuser National Park.


Safari Park keepers always have bars between them and the big cats, particularly at feeding time. Six days a week the Sumatrans are fed meat. One day a week, they fast for the sake of their health.

"We don't want fat tigers," Rieches said. "People think a fat cat is a healthy cat. But with extra weight comes health problems."

The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the tiger subspecies. But, at more than 6 feet in length and 250 pounds, Conrad remains an imposing presence when he stretches up, balances on his rear legs and puts his front legs on the glass.

When a visitor is near the exhibit, Conrad and the others stare directly. Their throaty roar is ferocious. "You're prey," Rieches said.