Pictured: The baby tigers who like nothing more than a daily dip in a swimming pool with their female trainers
October 26, 2008
Measuring over two metres in length and weighing 200lb, these one-year-old tigers are having the time of their lives.
Reaching for their human playmates with their giant paws, they dive, splash and even swim – in the same pool.
Together with their handlers, Moksha Bybee and Ragani Ferrante, tigers Balavan, Bali, and Oden display unusually close interaction between man and beast.
Animal expert Dr Bhagavan Antle has taught these amazing creatures to swim as part of an enrichment programme at his animal park in Miami.
‘Tigers have a natural desire and ability to swim, exceeding that of all the other big cats,’ said Dr Antle.
‘It is rarely seen and we wanted to be able to present it to people so they could really get the feel of that incredible beauty and grace that a tiger has in the water.
‘Tigers have modified webbing between their toes that makes their feet like flippers and they are superior swimmers.
‘Because of those attributes we thought it was something people would love so we built this custom-made pool to allow people to experience this unique behaviour.’
The water-loving animals all live at the Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, or TIGER, in Myrtle Beach, near Miami.
Filled with 100,00 gallons of water, one side of the entire pool is made of glass, allowing guests of the institute the unique opportunity to see the handlers and the animals up close swimming together.
‘There are other pictures out there of tigers underwater but people have never been able to get this close to a tiger because it is so dangerous,’ says Dr Antle.
‘These are the only shots I have ever seen where people are swimming with tigers like this.’
Dr Antle has a 25-year career caring for threatened species and has about 200 animals in large enclosures at the TIGER park.
He said: ‘I started swimming with tigers about 25 years ago.
‘We found that in the water people and tigers were on a more equal footing when the tiger was swimming around on the top.
‘As they were floating around we could manipulate them more easily because they don’t stand up on their back legs.
‘When they are younger they love taking baths and then we slowly introduce them to the pool.’
Dr Antle and his animal-trainers give one-on-one tuition to each of the animals while they are in the water.
‘These are hand-raised tigers,’ he said.
‘At the institute we feel that swimming with the big cats gives them a closer bond between the animal and their human companions.
‘As part of our wildlife education program they are all hand-reared.’ But despite the apparent danger, Doc ensures his trainers are never at risk.
‘There is always a team of handlers in the water at any given time,’ he explains.
‘I don’t think many people in the world try to get in the water with a tiger these days. It is all done from the edge when people throw meat and the tiger chases it.
‘We are playing with the tigers and letting then have that interactive capacity with the handlers instead of allowing them to have meat.’
Each tiger is introduced to the pool a few months after they are born.
With a potential to grow to over 500lbs and 8ft in length, it is often considered that handlers will only swim with the tigers when they are no more than a year old.
However Dr Antle often looks at each individual case when considering how close his trainers can remain to the tigers.
‘I depends on the tiger,’ he says.
‘I personally have had full-grown 15-year-old adult tigers that I swam with and adult ligers [cross between a lion and tiger]. But that is me and I wouldn’t put my staff at the same risk.
‘We will allow the tigers to swim with the handlers as they mature but we have to monitor each one on its own merits.’
The TIGER centre has several programmes allowing people to interact closely with the animals.
Many of the animals are also trained actors and have appeared in advertisements and films including Forrest Gump and Ace Ventura