Zoo hopes pairing of tigers will spark a family

Sparky, a 12-year-old male Sumatran tiger at the National Zoo, will be slowly introduced to Damai, a 7-year-old female. Keepers are hoping that the pair, whose species is critically endangered, will mate. Must credit: Photo by Kyra Zemanick contributed by the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Photo by: Kyra Zemanick — Smithsonian's National Zoo

Location: Washington United States

Keepers at the National Zoo are hoping that the newest bachelor at the facility, a Sumatran tiger named Sparky, takes a liking to bachelorette Damai.

If all goes well, zookeepers said, the two will breed and produce cubs. But breeding tigers is risky; males have killed females in other zoos if it isn’t a good match.

Native to Indonesia, Sumatran tigers are listed as critically endangered, with only 300 to 400 left in the wild and 78 in accredited zoos in North America.

Sparky, 12, and Damai, 7, were matched under an extensive species survival plan, zookeepers said. It was recommended that Sparky be bred with Damai based on their genetics.

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He has never sired cubs, and she has had two – Sukacita and Bandar – that turned 3 years old this month.

Sumatran tigers are relatively small, weighing up to about 275 pounds. They live up to 20 years in zoos and between 10 to 12 years in the wild. Known for being territorial and solitary, Sumatran tigers are carnivores.

“They don’t pair up, hang out and raise cubs together,” said Dell Guglielmo, an animal keeper at the zoo. In the wild, they “cross into each other’s territory, breed cubs and that’s it.”

The male goes away and the female raises the cubs on her own.

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In captivity, it is crucial to take it slow in the early stages. Zookeepers said it can take months to monitor their relationship and whether they will mate.

Like most first dates, it starts gradually for tigers. In fact, they don’t actually see each other in the beginning.

The two will start by smelling each other in the same building without actually seeing the other.

“They’ll share the same space but not at the same time,” Guglielmo said.

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Then, zookeepers said, they will be introduced to each other via a door with a mesh screen, called a “howdy door,” where the tigers can see each other. If things are going well, the tigers will make “distinct vocalization,” Guglielmo said.

“It is a friendly greeting,” she said. “They’ll head rub against the mesh to each other.”

And if things aren’t going well? They’ll growl, hiss and make a noise that sounds like a bark.

The courtship can last for months and will be closely watched so that – fingers crossed – the two breed and have cubs, zookeepers said.

“The reason it is done so gradually and slow is to make sure it is going to work because the repercussions can be death,” Guglielmo said.

Their two personalities are similar.

Sparky came to the zoo about a month ago. He was in a 30-day quarantine and zookeepers said he is “adjusting very well.”

“He came to us as a very calm, laid-back tiger,” Guglielmo said. “He’s proven that to be true.”

Damai is also an easygoing cat, zookeepers said. She came to the zoo in 2011 and mated with Kavi.

Their two cubs – Sukacita, known as “Suki” for short – is on a “breeding loan” to a zoo in Dallas, and the male cub, Bandar, will be going to another facility for breeding, according to zookeepers.

Whether – and when – there will be more Sumatran tiger cubs at the zoo remains unknown, but zookeepers said they are hopeful. Sparky has been paired with one female but is still without cubs.

“He’s not shooting blanks,” Guglielmo said. “He’s got a good sperm count.”