People often leave special experiences with exotic animals with new insights and caring levels which can make them better domestic companion owners, enhance their relationships with their families and others, to care more about threatened and endangered species and caring more about habitats and human impacts on it. Professional animal handlers and exhibitors such as myself and other responsible owners have gained those opportunities while maintaining superb safety records.
I experienced the special happening related in this article. In my thirty-year career working with over 100 species of animals in all sorts of hands-on situations, there are a few extremely special animal beings that stand above all others; a tigress named Keetah was one of those. We respected Keetah as an individual and a tiger. She shared many activities with us. We talked to her a lot and always tried to be very sensitive to her moods, likes and dislikes. She was motivated, versus trained. We made learning things fun, instead of a chore for her.
She was born in a zoo and raised in an excellent docent home until she was about 6 months old, then put back in the zoo. The docent said that she sensed some special things about "Keetah" early on, a calm disposition, enjoying being a part of activities and a great sense of humor.
Like several born to her parents, "Keetah" later developed cataracts that could not be corrected in her case. When she was about 1 1/2 years old, a young man named Brad, also superb with animals, heard that the zoo was going to "put her down" (kill her). Brad called the zoo about his taking her to save her life. The zoo cautioned him that she charged keepers and that he would never be able to control her and that she would be more than prone to attempt to kill people.
Her entire family that we met, except for her father, were pretty mellow tigers, so Brad questioned how the zoo represented her. She turned out to be quite the opposite of the negatives portrayed by the zoo. We did things with her on a collar and leash I still wouldn't do with many domestic animals, but she was an extremely unique tiger in total temperament. Brad and I shared many wonderful and unusual experiences with her.
She taught us an unbelievable amount about animals and might very well have fulfilled the zoos negative prognosis had she been in a less sensitive environment. She redeveloped the same qualities that the docent had described. In front of audiences, when she sensed people responding to her, she would often feed off an enthusiastic audience. She and touched many people in her short life (she died at the age of 3 1/2). Around other living beings, humans, animals, birds, etc. she generally acted as if their reason for living were to be a close friend. If she was around or met a person she didn't like (few of those), she would simply ignore them.
Keetah had been with us for about 11 months. We walked into the Saint Paul (Mn.) Civic Center, with her on a leash, for a trade show. Looking to my left, I saw that Keetah had keyed in on a paraplegic in a wheelchair, John, a complete stranger. Keetah sensed something and "woofed" at him.
John stopped his wheelchair. Keetah approached him and sat at his feet with a paw in his lap as she vocalized constantly to him. Tears were dripping down Johns' cheeks as he rested one hand on her paw and the other on her head.
I got about 4 sentences out, trying to apologize for her approaching him so abruptly and with no introduction and give some explanation. Suddenly, through his tears, John looked at us and said, “I appreciate your concern and trying to apologize, but she may have just saved my life!"
Naturally, both of us were more than a little curious about Johns' comment. But, given her sensitive personality, she had clearly sensed some level of unusual stress that John was feeling. My next thought was what was he planning to do here? We realized that a fair size crowd had gathered around, probably with the same amazement that Brad and I were feeling. Keeping people back, we both focused on John and Keetah.
John said that earlier that morning his fiancé had returned the ring and never wanted to see him again. The handicap-equipped van was in her name only and she was going to trade it in for a regular car. He had given away his 2 domestic cats because he felt he could not provide proper care for them. He had gotten a ride to the trade show with a friend as his last outing, and added "I have a gun at home and enough pills if I don't have the courage to shoot myself." He sounded serious.
Simply reacting to the situation, Brad handed John the end of the leash. We suggested making a "deal" with him. First, we'd keep everyone else back and give him and Keetah 10 minutes one on one before the trade show. We suggested he think about what had just happened and his comment - but without trying to analyze or explain what Keetah had done but instead to simply feel it emotionally and respond that way.
We asked John to stay at the trade show with us. We would give them another 15 minutes after for one on one. Then we gave him our phone number, asked him not to kill himself that night, to think about his experience as we suggested and call us in the morning. We promised that if he decided to take his life, we would not try to change his mind.
In a tone of measured reluctance, he agreed and stayed with us for the trade show and their time after. We sensed that Johns' attitudes and thoughts soften a bit during the trade show, and we were not sure what would happen that night. Going home, we discussed the afternoon and how it had affected us.
The next morning, John called about 10:30. He explained, with some emotion, that the experience with Keetah, her sensitivity to a complete stranger, caring and interaction had given him back every reason to live. We stayed in touch with him and provided some opportunities for him and Keetah to be together occasionally. She always responded to him in special ways that touched Brad and I deeply each time.
I am blessed to have worked with many wildlife ambassadors in my professional career. I have shared this experience with Keetah that clearly illustrate animals are considerably more than just "things" whose purpose of life is simply to do our bidding, conform to our own whims, become our alter egos and satisfy any urges for control over something else. They are living beings, though not human; with many capabilities beyond those humans typically accord them.
Quality relationships with companion animals can have subtle and sometimes profound effects on the mental and physical well being of the human element as consistently demonstrated by medical studies and results of animal assisted therapy. The quality of those relationships and their subtle effects is the result of choices made by people -not animals.
The Golden Rule is a great one to follow with all life and in all relationships; whether with other people, animals or the Environment. In this scenario, there are only mutual winners.
Many thanks to Pete Bergerson of for allowing the use of this article on ExoticCatz.com.com in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2004 by Pete Bergerson, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.