Be Like Mike

October 14, 2010

There's this old picture that used to sit in a frame in our house growing up. I'm about five, my sister two or three. We're in front of Mike the Tiger's cage wearing 70s winter coats that might look stylish again by now, but were certainly ugly while the picture was displayed through the 1980s.

The photographer tried to get us to face the camera, but young Sarah wouldn't stop looking at the tiger. So to be helpful, I grabbed her head and twisted it nearly 180 degrees. When the picture was snapped, her chubby little hands have a death grip on the chain link fence while her neck and torso are twisted around for the picture.

Thirty and some odd years later, the tiger cage still draws old and young alike. It's a rare moment in the day that there isn't someone at the mesh trying to get Mike's attention. It's the standard meeting place for ticket exchange or lost visitors. And it's impossible to look in on the live tiger and not feel awed, and for some reason, kind of happy.

Earlier this week, I dropped off Vanya at his gymnastic class on campus. To kill time, I walked over to see what was happening with Mike. He appeared to be asleep, but very close to the cage where he was easy to see. There were only two grown men trying to get his attention. They thought that he was sound asleep or ignoring them, but I noticed that he moved the ear that wasn't pressed to the ground to point toward them. He was listening.

When they wandered off, I took their spot right in front of the tiger. His shape and figure were just any house cat, but his paws looked like they were as big as dinner plates.

I did a thing that often gets cats' attention: I moisten my teeth with spit, and suck air through the front two. It probably depends on the gap in the teeth, but mine make a squeak that I imagine might sound like a distressed rodent or bird.

After a minute or two, I was about to give up. But Mike rolled onto his belly, yawned (Those big sharp teeth in front are unbelievable. I quickly thought about he could open me up and be eating my guts before I lost consciousness, because that's how my brain works.), and reached his front legs way out in front for a stretch. He never looked my way.

He stood up, waled away from me to a spot near a tree, and pissed about a quart of tiger urine. A minute later, I smelled it -- sort of a gamy smell mixed with the smell of straw, but based on the smell, I'd rather a tiger pee in my house than a house cat for sure.

By then, there were a few moms with kids showing up to see the tiger. Mike went for a swim in his pond, and he went up to each window to greet the kids. In most spots, he even stood still behind the children for long enough that the moms could get pictures. I started an iphone video and captured when he came up to greet me. (This one is a lot better than the one that I posted to facebook.)

I watched him for a little while longer, and then it was time to go home.