Tigers on prowl at Ohio State Fair

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 Messenger photos by John Matuszak
 Tosheeba, left, and Tobruk, four-year-old Bengal tigers, show the variations in the coloring that is unique for this sub-species.

 
 Tosheeba scampers through her enclosure next to the Celeste Center on the Ohio State Fair grounds. She’ll be romping through tall grass at the 80-acre Marcan Tiger Preserve when she returns to Florida.

If you visit to the Ohio State Fair, where the Marcan Tiger Show will be presented three times daily through Aug. 12, you might catch the cats involved in a favorite hobby: napping.

But their owner, Dr. Josip Marcan, is alert to the threat tigers face, and he wants to wake up his audiences to the need to preserve these magnificent animals.

In the wild, "they are doomed to extinction, unfortunately," declared Marcan, who has worked with tigers and other big cats for 50 years.

Three sub-species are already gone. The Bengals are the most numerous, but there are 1,500 or fewer of those outside of captivity, according to Marcan.

The reason for the decline: humans.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were three billion people and 100,000 tigers on the planet, he pointed out. At the dawn of the 21st century, there were six billion people and 1,500 tigers.

Their habitats in places such as India have been overtaken by a need for more houses and farm land, and many are hunted for hides and the supposed medicinal value of bones and teeth.

Having such a small number squeezed into tiny boundaries is not the ideal breeding environment, offered Marcan, who received veterinary training at the Frankfurt Zoo in Germany.

"That will kill them quicker than poachers," he said of the resultant in-breeding.

This situation led Marcan to establish his own 80-acre tiger preserve in Ponce de Leon, Fla., and to launch his traveling show to educate the public and raise funds for the breeding effort that provides tigers to zoos across the country.

His cats make five or six fair appearances a year. This is Marcan’s second visit to the Ohio State Fair, having brought his exhibit to Columbus in 1999.

It’s not a circus act, Marcan insisted. Instead, it highlights the bond between tigers and humans and brings out the animals’ natural behavior through positive reinforcement, not punishment.

Each of the tigers has a different personality, "just like people," Marcan said. "Some are vicious and some are gentle."

They may loll around like house cats at times, but they also demonstrate their tremendous strength.

A favorite toy is a bowling ball, which Tosheeba picks up in her mouth and carries around as if it were made of foam rubber.

The male Bengal can weigh up to 500 lbs., and the females are around 300 lbs. Bengals are unique in being the only sub-species that has different colored coats, from vivid oranges to almost total white.

Marcan said he has been lucky to have never been seriously injured by a tiger.

"I’m very good at reading them. I can tell what kind of mood they’re in, what they’re thinking," he explained.

His affinity for animals began at a young age in his native Croatia, where people brought him dogs and horses to train.

He sharpened his skills at the Frankfurt Zoo, eventually becoming assistant director. He became known as an expert on the big cats, earning him appearances on the "Ed Sullivan Show."

He settled in the United States in the late 1960s and established his breeding program.

"You have to breed responsibly," he said.

One zoo in Washington wanted a Bengal cub, but had to wait for a year and a half until the time was right, Marcan recalled.

He believes that preserves such as his are the last hope for the tigers, and that the call of animal rights activists for keeping the animals in the ever-shrinking wild is "unrealistic."

"Where is the wild? I want them to show me," he challenged.

His ultimate hope is that the species can be saved until a time when they can be returned to the wild.

In the meantime, if people are going to see a live tiger in 50 years, "it will be up to us to keep them alive in captivity," Marcan said.

The Marcan Tiger Show will be presented daily at 1, 3 and 7 p.m. in the arena on the north side of the Celeste Center.

Information on Marcan’s program is at www.marcantigers.org.

Information about additional fair programs is at www.ohiostatefair.com.

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