When Malayan tigers Hadiah and Kayu Merah were born at the Baton Rouge Zoo in summer 2014, excited animal lovers tuned in to the zoo’s “tiger cam” to see the furry cubs growing up.
Nearly two years later, the zoo’s staffers had to check their own camera footage to see if they could find clues about how and why young Hadiah was unexpectedly found dead on Thursday morning. They announced the death Friday.
The shocking loss of the young tiger follows an emotional month at the Baton Rouge Zoo. Between March 14 and April 14 , the zoo has seen the deaths of a young tiger, two elderly giraffes and one baby golden lion tamarin. It’s led the zoo to ask for an audit from their accrediting agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and now an investigation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The young — but not too young — age of Hadiah makes her death more unusual.
“At 2 to 3 months, you start breathing easier,” said the zoo’s General Curator and Assistant Director Sam Winslow. The median age of death for female Siberian tigers in captivity is 15 years, he said. There is more data available on the longevity of Siberian tigers than their rarer Malayan counterparts.
Hadiah had grown over the past two years from a tiger so tiny she looked like a stuffed animal into a roughly 200-pound wild animal. She lived in an exhibit with her sister and mother, Nazira, where they liked to play together.
The three were darlings of zoo-goers, especially LSU fans. The zoo staff expected that Hadiah would spend a little more time in Baton Rouge before heading to another zoo where she could breed.
“When an animal’s acting fine, acting normal all day … it’s really a shock,” Winslow said. “Just like if you left your dog in the morning and you come home and it’s dead. You question, did you miss something, or was there something that you should have picked up on? But we have video to confirm she was acting normal.”
On Wednesday afternoon, veterinary staff performed rounds and found Hadiah “exhibiting normal behavior and in great health,” according to the zoo’s vet, Gordon Pirie.
Zookeepers reported that she was still acting normally when the zoo closed Wednesday evening and the tigers went into their den for the night, according to a news release.
Video footage leading up to her death shows Hadiah resting before showing obvious signs of distress, according to the zoo. She died 15 minutes later.
“The video footage did show signs of abdominal distress shortly before her death,” Pirie said in the release. “That could be attributed to gastric dilatation, which can be acute and is often fatal, but that is a clinical observation only as viewed from the video.”
Winslow said they will not know for sure until the results of a necropsy come back in a few weeks.
Kayu Merah and Nazira are still on display in the zoo’s exhibit. Winslow said they are acting normally.
The excitement surrounding the tigers’ births in 2014 led the zoo to hold a naming contest for them. They were the first tigers born at the zoo in nearly 25 years, and Malayan tigers are endangered, with fewer than 500 left in captivity or in the wild.
The tigers’ names are both Malayan, a nod to their origins. Hadiah means gift, and Kayu Merah means red stick.
The recent deaths of some of the zoo’s most popular animals have been difficult, Winslow said.
“It’s pretty discouraging; you always question when you do right things but bad things happen,” he said. “It’s hard on the staff.”
The deaths also have coincided with zoo leaders kicking off a $110 million rebuilding campaign, in which their hired consultant has advised them to move to the zoo to a different location. North Baton Rouge residents have argued in favor of keeping the zoo where it is, saying it’s one of the few desirable destinations in their community.
Consultants have told the zoo that they would get far more visitors in south Baton Rouge. Zoo Director Phil Frost and BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight have said they have not made up their minds yet about whether the zoo will move. BREC runs the zoo.
Amid the controversy, Frost has said rebuilding the zoo would not necessarily translate into getting new animals. Bringing animals to a zoo can be a lengthy process of genetic matching and finding breeding pairs.
Winslow said the zoo has not looked into replacing Hadiah. He said he’s not sure if they will because she probably was going to go to another zoo to breed anyway.
“Our veterinary and keeper staff provide the best quality of care for our animals possible, but deaths do happen, and unfortunately, we’ve had a rough spring,” Frost said in a statement. “By inviting the USDA to come in for a voluntary inspection, we’re hoping to assure our supporters that everything that can be done for the care and well-being of our animals is being done on a daily basis.”