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The Tiger Cubs

Groupon started this, which should have been our first sign to question it. An “accredited” zoo, in south central Virginia, for a modest donation would offer a “tiger cub experience” with a zookeeper for safety. We could pet tigers.

Brandy and Mary were immediately in, as was I. Katie, in her laid back style, mused on it a bit but agreed. We would journey to the Charlottesville area, in an excursion to interact with some tigers.

The drive down was mostly uneventful and led by me, per usual. As one of the few in our group with a car and an outsized love of being in charge, driving was my usual role. En route, we had somehow discovered the nearby existence of an unappreciated tourist attraction: Foamhenge.

Foamhenge was precisely what the name implies: a full replica of Stonehenge, made entirely out of carved industrial foam. As we wandered, wondering not just how but more specifically WHY, I began to get a bit nervous about the tiger time ahead. Couldn’t baby tigers still hurt us? Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?

At the zoo, the small entry building offered few clues from the outside about the menagerie that lay behind it. Since we’d arrived early, the desk attendants suggested we wander the zoo first, where we encountered a mix of animals whose most common denominator seemed to be an ability to live in the Virginian climate.

Near the adult tigers, we paused, wondering if these were the parents of the cubs we would soon meet. As we watched them prowl their cage, one began to curl its spine like the “cat” of cat/cow in yoga. As it turned the ”matter out” end of its body towards us, three of the four of us instinctively backed away. Katie, did not, thus receiving the tiger spray directly to her chest. She belonged to that tiger now.

Inside, we were led to a small office, full of office knickknacks, files, and old computer equipment. On the floor was a pile of stuffed animals.

”Grab one of the stuffies,” the zookeeper (was he an actual zookeeper?) said. “That’s your redirect. There are two cubs, and if they get too interested in you as prey, you can use the stuffed animal to redirect their attention elsewhere.”

That was it. We would be meeting the tiger cubs equipped with a plush purple dog and an oversized white rabbit. Godspeed. At least they are small.

”How much longer will you be able to do this with the cubs?” I inquired nonchalantly during the Q&A portion of our suspiciously brief safety message.

”This is the last week,” replied the alleged zookeeper. “They’re getting big and taking more interest in the guests.”

”Interest” sounded menacing.

A few minutes later, the ‘tiger mom’ entered the room with the cubs. We learned that she had been raising these large predators in her home, wrapping them in assorted cheerful Walmart fleece blankets.

The tigers, one orange and one white, were the size of an adult Cocker Spaniel with the temperament of your friend’s suspicious rescue street cat who doesn’t know who you and who you are encountering for the first time alone because you agreed to feed the cat while your friend is away.

Orange went immediately to Katie. Perhaps the spraying of an hour earlier had made her an attractive target, unmasked by the furious hand soap scrubbing we’d attempted in the ladies’ room post-anal-gland-emission.

She confidently deployed a carnival-prize snake as armor against the cat’s rising interest in her forearm. As Orange’s claws began to uncomfortably penetrate her jacket, ‘tiger mom’ firmly dragged Orange off of Katie. This process would repeat around a dozen times over the next 30 minutes.

White, meanwhile, meandered past each of us, like perusing the aisles of a grocery store, before retreating under an office chair to intently stare at each of us.

When White slowly crawled up the desk and began to position itself on the ledge in a ‘takeoff’ manner, the alleged zookeeper made a hasty grab to scoop White up, holding it directly out in front of him as he walked briskly from the room.

”No more?” Mary asked, confused why 50% of the reason we came had just quickly left the party.

”He’s stalking you!” tiger mom explained. She was amused. “We’ve noticed he starts to stalk people, which is also why it’s time to stop doing these. When he‘s getting ready to pounce, we have to take him out.”

After another 20 minutes of taking turns allowing Orange to nearly sample our skin, and after I learned that my severe cat allergies is definitely applicable to tigers - we were finished. Unceremoniously, tiger mom declared “Time’s up!” then grabbed Orange in a fleece blanket adorned with the cover image of “Twilight” and headed into the darkened adjacent room White and the alleged zookeeper waited for them.

Ten minutes and one gift shop later, we climbed into my car for the return trip. Quietly, individually but together, we absorbed what had happened. Was that Zoo legitimate? Were the tigers okay? What started as fun Groupon now felt like the ‘animal experience’ equivalent of conflict diamonds.

Nine years have passed since that visit, and I wonder about those tiger cubs. Are they still somewhere in Southwest Virginia? Did White ever get to attack anyone? Wouldn’t we have seen that on the news in DC?

Last week I saw an ad for a ”sloth experience.” I think I’ll pass.

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