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Whatever happened to ... Shasta the Utah liger?

First Published      Last Updated Jul 14 2017 07:55 pm

Half lion, half tiger, she helped build Hogle Zoo by attracting big crowds; her stuffed remains are at BYU museum.

Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places and items of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.

Back in 1948, Salt Lake City's Hogle Zoo was small and struggling. But a special birth on May 6 that year would change everything.

For the first time in America, a liger — half lion, half tiger — was born there, and became national news.

She was called Shasta and would draw extra thousands of visitors from afar annually during her still-record 24 years of life. The crowds, their money and the attention she attracted helped build the zoo from mediocrity to top-tier status.

Even after she died in 1972, Shasta was sent to a taxidermist and her stuffed body attracted curiosity seekers to the zoo for decades more.

But, in 1997, she was removed as such hybrids became more controversial at zoos. Stuffed Shasta now helps attract visitors to the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University, where guides talk about the ethics of crossbreeding.

"She was really the attraction that kept the zoo going," says LaMar Farnsworth, who as a young zoologist took care of her for several years along with other large cats and elephants. He later would become director of the zoo.

"The zoo was so small at the time that she practically was the only draw that it had. At that time, there weren't too many people who visited," he said. "She was the big draw."

Shasta's mother was Daisy, a tiger. Her father was Huey, a lion. Daisy and Huey had been raised together as youngsters for a time — which zoo officials said was a reason they were able to mate the pair. Newspapers reported at the time that similar attempts elsewhere led to potential parents killing or injuring each other.

"The people who were in charge of the zoo at the time were former circus people. They put the parents together on purpose hoping for something like that," Farnsworth says, noting that lions and tigers do not mate in the wild.

"Shasta was probably better suited for the circus than a zoo because she was a rare oddity, not one that most of the zoo community thought should be there," Farnsworth added.

Shasta weighed 1 pound 12 ounces at birth. Her mother rejected her, so newspapers said city parks director Joseph L. Sloan took the kitten home to bottle-feed her.

When she reached 30 pounds, she was put on public display — and was instantly the zoo's star. Huge crowds came to see the cat with the face of a lion and stripes of a tiger.

While Shasta was named through a Deseret News contest, Farnsworth said zoo workers joked that the name was appropriate for the pampered celebrity cat. "People said she was named Shasta because She-hasta have this, and She-hasta have that."

He adds that Shasta "was the only liger in the country for a long time." When she was 9 years old, she became the only liger in the world for several years after the death of liger Rajah, in the Bloemfontein, South Africa, zoo.

"Everybody had to see her," Farnsworth says.

Big, loving crowds came to her annual birthday parties. In 1962, for example, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that 8,000 people attended her birthday party — with many arriving an hour before the zoo opened to ensure prime spots for the festivities.

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