The small cats are about 5 months old. I hesitated to get close to any of them at first, not purely out of caution but because I felt a personal need to acclimate to such a bizarre situation rather than just diving in and touching a living tiger as if it’s a cat. The handler got me to sit down behind a little male tiger and start touching his coat. You must always approach and deal with the tigers from the back (so they don’t think you want to play, as the handlers explained, but later added that if he decides he wants to bite you have more time to move) and you cannot touch their heads or front paws. Anything from the shoulders down is fair game though.
The texture of a tiger’s fur is strange. It’s not like the hair of a domestic cat and it’s not like a dog. Each hair is very thin, so there’s a softness or smoothness to it, but it also allows you to feel the anatomy of the beast in a really immediate sense. It’s maybe closely similar to deer hyde or even a horse. The stripes are amazing, unique to every tiger like fingerprints, and they all have black ears with white spots on the back. As I was petting the little male the “naughty one” as the handler called her was tormenting an immense male tiger in an adjacent cage. She bit at his back paws that were pressed against the fence between them and actually leaped up on to the fence and held herself there (like a cat on a screen door) for a few seconds. The tiger I was petting got bored and moved a few feet away, just like a cat that has decided he doesn’t want to be stroked anymore. So the handler took us over to a group of three tigers that were wrestling on a log. The “naughty one” was really beautiful, with brown eyes instead of gold as the rest of the tigers had. She was a trouble maker for sure and I gave her lots of space. A few tigers lounged in the corner of the enclosure, one of them completely cashed out with his head upside-down and his back paws pressed up against the wall.
At one point a little girl, maybe 3 years old, was sitting outside the enclosure in the middle of the walkway, maybe 10 feet away from the fence. Every tiger in the small enclosure (except the sleeping one), lead by the “naughty one” darted over to the fence and crouched down in an unmistakable stalking pose. They crouched and slinked, skulked and shifted their shoulders as they lay flat with their hips at the ready to spring into action. It was incredible to see them being predators like this and the little girl just had no idea at all that she was being stalked. The handler explained that this is why children aren’t allowed in the enclosures except with the babies – they all see little children as something to play with.