One Bengali lived at Big Cat Rescue, the other at Associated Humane Societies’ Popcorn Park Zoo
Bengali, 21 or 22 years of age, either way one of the half dozen oldest tigers on record, and one of two tigers within that elite half dozen to share the name Bengali, died on May 31, 2016 at Big Cat Rescue on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida.
Arriving at Big Cat Rescue on December 5, 2000, Bengali was among the first six of 19 tigers plus a leopard that the sanctuary received from a struggling circus whose name has never been disclosed as a condition of the deal.
“You have to see this!”
Recalled Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin, “It was either late 1997 or maybe 1998 when a friend of mine walked into my office and said, ‘You have to see this!’
“That led to a road trip to secretly meet with an elephant keeper who said that he just hated tigers and would do anything to get rid of them. He was angry because his well hidden plot of dirt, where used elephants go to disappear, had been taken over by a long row of circus wagons full of tigers.
“I could not believe my eyes,” Baskin said, “when I saw circus wagon after wagon, each with a lone tiger and a water bowl and nothing else. No shade, no toys, no place to lie except on the hot, hard floors of the iron barred cages.
Years of negotiations
“The keeper said the cats had been there for a couple of years because they wouldn’t perform any more and that USDA was all over them about the conditions, but nobody wanted to spend money on building a retirement center for them because, unlike the elephants, breeding them wasn’t lucrative. There were plenty of back yard breeders who were using cubs for photo ops and then selling them to circuses to be used,” or worse, covertly trafficking in tiger parts or selling tigers to “canned hunts.”
That visit, Baskin remembered, “began two or three years of negotiations between me and the circus to get the cats out of the beast wagons and into Big Cat Rescue. I’d just lost my [first] husband and the courts had seized our assets because we didn’t know where he’d gone, or if he’d be back. His kids by a former wife didn’t want any more of ‘their money’ being wasted on feeding and caring for lions, tigers and the other hundred or so exotic cats at the sanctuary.
Tigers for Christmas
“There was no way I could afford to take the 20 tigers from the circus,” wrote Baskin “The negotiations ended with the agreement that the circus would build the cages and supply the food and vet care costs, and I would take them as they fell ill or stopped performing.
“Just before Christmas 2000,” Baskin continued, “the first six tigers arrived.”
Bengali, the only Bengal tiger among them, had no name, so became Bengali.
Siegfried & Roy
Bengali was said to have been born at the Secret Garden mini-zoo at the Mirage Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, where illusionists Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn performed with tigers from 1990 to 2003, and continue to breed and display white tigers.
The first white tigers joined the Siegfried & Roy show in 1995. The Siegfried & Roy white tiger breeding program began in 1998, but their involvement in tiger breeding goes back farther.
“The paperwork the tigers arrived with said Bengali had been born in 1995,” Baskin said, “but later, one of the circus vets said they had records on him going back to 1993. We discovered that back in 2013 when his brother died,” who for some reason shared the name of the first female white tiger in the Siegfried & Roy menagerie, obtained in 1995 from the Johannesburg Zoo in South Africa.
“Happy & beloved”
“When Bengali arrived,” Baskin recalled, “his trainers said he was treacherous and would surely kill someone, but as soon as he had 2,000 square feet of space to himself, with a pond, cave, trees, bushes and grass, he became one of the happiest and most beloved of tigers who ever stepped foot on Tampa soil.”
Bengali was euthanized after his health had been “a bit of a roller coaster ride for the past several years,” Baskin said. “He didn’t want to eat and we couldn’t get him to take his meds. Without his pain management meds, for all of his old cat issues, he felt worse. The worse he felt, the less inclined he was to eat or take his pills.
“As we kneeled beside him for his last breaths,” Baskin finished, “I noticed again the scars on his elbows from the years of pacing around in the tiny circus wagon. I couldn’t hold back the tears. None of us could.”
Bengali was euthanized about two years and five months after Flavio, another Big Cat Rescue tiger who was the oldest on record between the death of the other Bengali, 24, on January 18, 2013, and Flavio’s own death on January 5th, 2014.
“Flavio arrived in 2002 after retiring from the circus,” recalled Baskin. “He was hailed as the smartest circus tiger ever known. He performed a light-and-music number flawlessly for years, until he decided one day that he didn’t like the other tigers and all he wanted to do was fight. He was known here for having the loudest voice of any of our tigers. What sounded like loud moaning was actually just his way of communicating with all of us. And, you could always count on him to give a demonstration of how powerful a tiger’s spray can be when marking his territory and possessions.”
Bengali the Elder
The other Bengali, who had just undergone surgery to remove a tumor from his pancreas, spent the last decade of his life as the emblematic animal at the Popcorn Park Zoo, a sanctuary for wildlife and large domestic species operated since 1977 by the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey.
Both Big Cat Rescue and the Popcorn Park Zoo have also cared for several bobcats who lived far beyond the ages of any others of their species for whom ages were documented.
Reportedly bred and raised to be shot at a Texas hunting ranch, the Popcorn Park Zoo tiger named Bengali was said to have escaped being shot and stuffed when in 1990 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service cracked down on “canned hunts” featuring species listed as endangered or threatened by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Came to Popcorn Park Zoo at age 15
Nearly 15 years later, recalled Popcorn Park Zoo director John Bergmann, “Bengali was the last cat left at a defunct big cat sanctuary in Texas, from which we had taken three other tigers the year before. In January of 2003 someone called us to help out with Bengali because no one else could take him in and he was starting to fail.
“In May 2003 Bengali arrived––emaciated, weak and with hardly any will to live. His first accomplishment was just being able to jump up on his bench. That took a week. Then he began acknowledging us, walking a little more each day, and gaining back some strength.”
The Popcorn Park Zoo tiger named Bengali, already older than most tigers live to be, made faster progress after learning that an elderly African lioness named Jaz lived in an adjacent enclosure. Their friendship was brief, as Jaz died in December 2003, but by then Bengali had befriended many other Popcorn Park Zoo animals and staff.
Though aware that Bengali was old for his species, the Associated Humane Societies did not know he might have been the oldest tiger ever, Associated Humane president Roseann Trezza told ANIMALS 24-7.
The next oldest tiger whose exact age was known was Huahua, named for her “chuffing” sound. Born in 1985 at a zoo in Guangzhou, China, Huahua later lived in zoos in Suzhou and Luoyang, where she died on August 14, 2007, mourned by Chinese state media as the oldest tiger in the multi-milennia recorded history of tiger captivity in China.
About 30% of the estimated 2,800 South China tigers in Chinese zoos today––some of which are thinly disguised factory farms producing tigers to sell “tiger bone wine” and body parts––are reportedly descended from Huahua and her 24 cubs.
Only one other tiger is known to have reached age 23: Dani, a longtime resident of the Stropkov Zoo in Slovakia, who was for a time the world’s oldest tiger after Huahua died.
Ivan, 20, the oldest known tiger at an accredited North American zoo, was euthanized in January 2003 due to conditions of age. Born at the Fort Worth Zoo, Ivan had lived at the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Michigan, since 1989.