Close Enough to Smell Their Breath: How Your Taxes Are Saving Tigers

The Denver Zoo’s new exhibit – The Edge – brings visitors closer than ever to Amur tigers — and it brings the zoo closer to fulfilling a facility master plan laid out in 2015.
On a warm April afternoon, two Amur tigers are snoozing in the shade, lounging lazily on the outskirts of their new habitat, which is nestled behind the sea lion exhibit on the southeast side of Denver Zoo’s century-old campus. Sometimes called Siberian tigers, the cats look hot and content. They’re well suited for Colorado’s cold winters, and its hot, dry summers, too, given that they’re native to the Amur region located along the Chinese-Russian border.  

You’d be hard pressed to spot an Amur tiger in its natural habitat, though, because only a few hundred still exist in the wild. “They are very, very endangered,” says Becca McCloskey, Denver Zoo’s curator of primates and carnivores. Zoos, McCloskey says, give animal care professionals an opportunity to “bring awareness to the situation.”

The Zoo's Amur tigers are commonly known as Siberian tigers. All photos provided by the Denver Zoo.

Denver Zoo’s big new habitat opened March 17 for three tigers — two males born at Denver Zoo in 2010, and a female from a zoo in Omaha. “We brought her to preserve a potential breeding system,” explains McCloskey.

The male tigers lived in the nearby Felines exhibit before relocating to The Edge, which increases their outdoor living space by almost 50 percent. But, says McCloskey, “Anyone with a house cat knows that cats aren’t excited about change.” It took time for the tigers to adjust to their new space. “Now they own it,” McCloskey adds.   

The three cats share a habitat, but they don’t exactly live together. The Edge’s four outdoor yards are partitioned, and the tigers rotate between these spaces and their inside quarters throughout the day. “They’re a solitary species, and in the wild they would only come together for breeding,” McCloskey explains.

Everything about The Edge was designed to mimic its inhabitants’ natural environment. And it was the project’s budget constraints, of all things, that really pushed developers to create a dwelling fit for a tiger.

Building The Edge

It took more than two years to create The Edge, and nearly $2.2 million in Better Denver Bond funding from the City and County of Denver. That might sound like a hefty price tag, but it was “a modest amount,” says George Pond, Denver Zoo’s senior VP for design and campus management. “We had to be very creative and deliberate in order to achieve our goals on a tight budget,” he says.

The new habitat was paid for with $2.2 million in Better Denver Bond funds.

Take a look at other Denver Zoo exhibits, and you’ll notice more than a few impressive features: deep excavations, for example, and expansive rock work. “We’re very proud of those exhibits,” Pond says. But budget and space constraints pushed Pond and his colleagues toward different design formations when creating The Edge. “That really made us focus on giving the tigers a great space to be tigers: jumping, perching, stalking, and swimming,” Pond says.

Spanning almost an acre, The Edge was built on the vacant lot that had once housed Wolf Woods. “Nothing was bumped from the footprint of the zoo for The Edge,” says McCloskey. Working around existing trees, developers incorporated two water features and toys – striped logs, and climbing poles, for example, for hanging meat – along with ramps and steps leading to an elevated walkway where the tigers can strut 12 feet above human heads.

“The cats absolutely love that — being up top, surveying the scene,” McCloskey says, noting that in the old feline house all human-tiger interaction was eye-level.

The Edge features a ground level viewing area, too, with a perforated metal wall that makes it possible for visitors to interact with Amur tigers in some pretty unconventional ways, smelling their breath and hearing them chuff. “It feels like there is almost nothing between you and the tiger,” says McCloskey.

To really stretch its budget, Denver Zoo engaged its staff members to help with design work and fabrication. All of the exhibit’s structural steel, for example, was designed in-house and erected by zoo staff.

A City Catalyst

Moving the tigers to a new exhibit was part of a comprehensive, project-based master plan Denver Zoo crafted in 2015. The feline houses were built in 1964, and in need of renovation. “We had already identified this area as a priority when we had an opportunity to receive bond funds from the city,” Pond explains.  

The attraction lets visitors get close enough to smell the breath of the tigers.

As far as Pond is concerned, “The tiger exhibit is one more piece of us moving through our master plan, which will allow Denver Zoo to continue to be a world-class zoo into the future.”   

“We’re an exemplary public-private partnership,” adds Denver Zoo’s director of public affairs, Andrew Rowan. Denver Zoo is “an agent of the city,” Rowan explains. “We operate the campus on behalf of the city.”
Denver Zoo, then, is meant to fit into Denver’s broader cultural landscape. The institution is the most visited cultural organization in the state of Colorado, hosting over 2 million guests annually. “People really find the value in spending time at the zoo, and investing in the zoo as a cultural entity,” Rowan says.

Stewardship Near and Far

“A lot of planning and design went into creating this exhibit,” McCloskey says. “It was a big project, and the tigers are absolutely worth it,” she continues, observing that, “The zoo field is changing rapidly, and for the better.”

Denver Zoo’s behavioral curators monitor animals’ physical, mental, nutritional and emotional needs using metrics and charts — “not just a gut feeling,” McCloskey clarifies. “We go to tremendous lengths to make sure they are happy and healthy in all areas,” says McCloskey. “We want them to have the best lives possible with us.”

The cats, native to the Amur region located along the Chinese-Russian border, are endangered.

“Tigers are a lot of people’s favorite animal,” McCloskey continues. “We wanted to give our visitors a chance to see them in a really nice exhibit while teaching people about what they can do to help conserve tiger populations in the wild.” At the top of the list, McCloskey says, “Make sure the wood products you buy are sustainably sourced.” One of the biggest threats to wild tigers is the loss of their habitat through logging.

Adds McCloskey, “With this exhibit, we want people to make a connection with the animals, care about them, and maybe change their behavior to have a lighter footstep in this world.”  


Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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