On the Job: A Zookeeper Shares Fun Facts About the Cubs

Neil Dretzka, feline area supervisor at the Milwaukee County Zoo, answers questions.

Neil Dretzka
Neil Dretzka prepares food for the big cats.

The mother is always in the exhibit with the cubs.  Does the father ever spend time with the cubs?

Bachuta was sent to the Bronx Zoo on Dec. 29, 2009.  Although zookeepers were sad, the cubs weren’t affected by this change.  Bachuta never interacted with the cubs and was kept in a separate area.  “He had always acted nice to the cubs,” Dretzka said, “but it wasn’t worth the risk of getting one of the cubs hurt.”  In the past, fathers have hurt their offspring while trying to play with them.  The closest he ever was to the cubs was about 8-10 feet from them in the back area.  “They would greet each other with a friendly preston (a release of air saying hello).”

Amur tigers naturally live in a cold environment.  Will we be able to see the tiger cubs frolicking in the snow in their outside exhibit?

They could go out in the winter.  The temperature wouldn’t be a problem for the cubs.  The problem is that there is a dry moat.  The young tigers might want to play around the moat and they might not be big enough to survive a fall into the moat.  If they did fall, the moat has a ramp so that the animals could climb out of the moat back into their exhibit and a gate that we control from the top.   

In the indoor exhibit, there are multiple pits full of mulch.  Are they litter boxes?

No, they are beds for planting trees in the tigers’ exhibit.  When the exhibit was new, they were planted with Norfolk pines and ferns.  Eventually the tigers killed them all, and we added bark chips to them.  “They are not used too much as litter boxes thankfully,” Dretzka said.

Is there such a thing as tiger years?

We really don’t think that way.  By the time they are 20, tigers are the equivalent of a 90-year-old man.  When they are 1 to 1½, they are no longer cubs.  By the time they are 2-3, they are young adults, and by the time they are 4-6, they are in their prime. 

Text by Benjamin Wright.
Photographs by Richard Brodzeller/Zoological Society of Milwaukee unless otherwise noted.