For keepers at the Hogle Zoo’s tiger exhibit, mornings are going to be much quieter after Kazek the tiger’s death.
The big cat died early Friday, a month short of his 15th birthday, after battling inflammatory bowel disease for 10 years. A necropsy also found a mass growing in his small intestine, according to a news release from the zoo.
Now, when keepers come into work, their morning routine will be absent the tiger’s signature greeting: a unique tiger vocalization that is a cross between a purr and a sheep’s bleat.
"He was a great cat. He would chuff at us to say good morning,” lead keeper Stephanie Natt said, “every morning.”
Zoo spokeswoman Erica Hansen told The Salt Lake Tribune that many keepers had told her they would miss the morning chuffs.
And Kazek was more than just chatty, Hansen said. He was a staple in the zoo’s Asian Highland exhibit, where he’d been living since it opened in 2006.
In his nearly 15 years, Kazek traveled from a Philadelphia zoo, where he was born, to the Buffalo Zoo to the Hogle Zoo, as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, Hansen said.
The plan matches threatened or endangered captive animals to others based on genetic fit for breeding, and means zoos don’t have to buy or sell their animals.
Kazek is an Amur tiger, the largest species of tiger and critically endangered. Experts estimate only 400 Amur tigers remain in the wild, according to the news release. The big cat’s habitat extends from far eastern Russia to northeast China.
While in Salt Lake City, Kazek fathered three cubs with another tiger, Basha, Hansen said.
Those cubs now live in zoos in San Fransisco, Louisville and Japan. Basha lives in Idaho.
Before his death, Kazek had been living with female companion Cila. As is customary after an animal dies at the zoo, Cila was brought in to be with Kazek’s body after he died.
“It’s important to us that the animals know [of the death],” Hansen said. “And they can sniff. Some animals sniff. Some just sit there and poke and walk away. It just kind of depends.”
Cila, who is 15 and also has inflammatory bowel disease, seemed to be OK after learning of Kazek’s death. She was given a bone, and had an appetite, Hansen said.
Hansen said Kazek was one of the first animals she had a connection with when she started at the zoo. She’d go to his exhibit to watch him during his lunch break — and he’d watch her back.
“When he’d come up to that glass and stares at you, it makes your heart skip, it does,” she said. “That’s what they talk about with the ‘eye of the tiger’: it’s that intense gaze.”
After his death, keepers lauded Kazek’s agreeableness — a quality cat owners can attest doesn’t come standard in every feline.
Hansen said the personality trait may have extended his life, since he’d let keepers give him medicine to manage his inflammatory bowl disease. At one point, Kazek had a flare up so substantial that his liver failed, but a care team helped him recuperate.
“It’s because he was so willing to participate that we were able to bring him back from the brink and give him a lot of extra years,” she said.
Kazek’s condition inspired the zoo to lead a study on gastrointestinal health of tigers kept in captivity. It is ongoing, according to a news release.
After Cila dies, Hansen said, she doesn’t know if the zoo will receive new Amur tigers to replace her and Kazek. Until then, Hansen said Cila should be fine living alone in the exhibit, as Amur tigers normally live solitary lives in the wild.