Zuzu Irwin’s Brush with a Bengal Tiger

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An Imaginary Portrait of Mabel Stark

Ranthambore National Park, India 1993

My family had just moved to New Delhi, India after an awful four-and-a-half years in Pakistan. The relocation to Delhi was one of the most dramatic and positive ones for me mainly because I was tired of having to comply with Muslim dress codes (since of my younger sisters I am the one who looks the most “South Asian”) and also due to the mean girl infestation in my school that left me feeling ostracised for the bulk of our time in Islamabad. Delhi was a blessed chance at a fresh start, and was one moment where I was supremely happy to be a Third Culture Kid.

Another wonderful thing was that the international school in which I was then enrolled, The American Embassy School (AES), was huge on seeing and experiencing different aspects of India, its cities, sites and culture. Within just a few months of arriving in Delhi I was off on a school trip to a Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, the province that houses the famous cities of Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. During this trip we actually stayed in the park in small cabins, four to a room. In my previous school a trip like this would have caused such severe anxiety that my stomach would start hurting and I wouldn’t even be able to go. But in that moment, new school, new friends, a new adventure, it was a wonderful bonding experience and in fact I am still friends with many of my classmates, including the girls I bunked with. Goddess Bless Facebook.

I’d been on safaris before, many times actually, and I’d even been on a safari in India with my mom and Milwaukee grandparents a few years before while we were living in Pakistan. The idea of climbing into a double-decker open-top jeep was no big deal, even though the tigers, if we saw one, would be significantly bigger than our vehicle. Wow.

Our class was split into three groups and we piled into our respective adventure-mobiles, water bottles in one hand and analog camera in the other. These were the days before snapping pics at will: You had to choose your shots carefully and watching the 24 potential images wind down was exciting, but also annoying.

The jeeps revved up and off we went into the jungle. It was springtime and the trees were just starting to bud leaves. There was a slight chill in the air that would become a searing heat soon enough. We rode through the park, my budding breasts sore from the bumpy terrain, trying to be as surreptitious as possible in the placement of my arms for added support. There were bird sounds, our car occasionally upsetting a flock who would fly away screaming. We saw many herds of sambar, a friendly big-eared deer relative, who were clearly used to the lumbering vehicles passing through their territories.

But no tigers.

At the time there were only a few hundred tigers housed in the park, and poaching was a huge problem. The guide warned us that we’d likely not see a tiger seeing how private they are and how clunky was our mode of traipsing through their territory.

More sambar, more birds, and still more sambar. All of a sudden the jeep stopped, we lurched in our seats. Something was happening. I have no idea how the guide knew, maybe it was a quieting of the jungle around him he clearly knew well or some sort of tiger guide spidey sense, but with an urgency that was borderline frightening he hushed us all.

“Don’t move!” he hissed.

From our perch seats on the jeep, six or so feet in the air, we craned our necks quietly, wondering what would appear.

I looked down and saw her:

A tiger. Female. And pregnant. Her belly bulging out; she was ready any day for birth, the guide would tell us later. From where I sat, with my freakishly long monkey-arms, I could have easily leaned over and touched her. From head to tail, yes, she was larger than our jeep. She paid us no mind, not even looking at us as she walked by, her gold-striped pelt just inches from the car.

I was gobsmacked.

And I also felt sorry for my fellow classmates sitting on the other side of the jeep who did not witness this magical and little-seen creature in its natural habitat brush past our jeep and disappear into the jungle.

Like my encounter with the jellyfish, this was one of those singularly magnificent moments in my life.

Not to mention, our jeep was the only one to see a tiger in the three days we were at the park, and the first ones to have actually seen a tiger in months, the guide would brag later.

In the years since I still feel a close affinity with tigers, even though in general I am not a big fan of cats (allergies). Whenever I see a tiger in film, on tv or anywhere, I think of my brush with the pregnant Bengal.

The movie Two Brothers, about two Bengal tigers who are separated from their mother and the amazing path their lives take, gave me chills and made me cry because as far as adventure stories go it is one stressful film, but it is also beautiful. I imagined that the three tigers were those I had seen on that day in Ranthambore, a family separated and re-united.

Reading The Last Confession of Mabel Stark, the story of the world’s first woman circus tiger tamer moved me on many levels. I felt sad that most people will never see a tiger (or any animal) in its natural habitat and it breaks my heart that these majestic beings are forced to live in cages, restlessly pacing back and forth, back and forth. But on the flip side, Mabel’s relationship with the tigers was mind-boggling: They loved her, trusted her, she trusted them, and the shows she was able to accomplish were trail-blazing and braver than anyone, let alone any man, had attempted to that point.

CNN actually did a special show about Ranthambore national park a few years back and when they showed the footage of the tigers, I wondered if any of those were the tigeress I’d seen or even one of her children. Watching the program, seeing the jungle I had once ridden through, I felt an odd sensation of having returned home.

You can’t imagine how jealous I was when my mother surprised me with the news that she had visited the tiger sanctuary just outside Bangkok and spent all day sitting next to, petting and even cuddling with tigers! Jealous, yes, but also thrilled that my mother had the opportunity to commune with these magnificent beasts for a whole day.

A fitting end to the Year of the Tiger, coming to a close on February 2, 2011.

Tigers signify adventure to me. Tiger medicine is one of embracing new experiences, letting go of the past, taking risks and seeing how those risks change one’s path. Being unafraid. Unafraid of death, dismemberment, not being scared of sporting scars, emotional or otherwise. Tigers also represent freedom. Freedom to walk around your own habitat unfettered, the freedom to see other creatures, human or otherwise, doing the same.

Have you ever seen a tiger in the wild?

4 Responses to Zuzu Irwin’s Brush with a Bengal Tiger

  1. I loved reading your story Sezin and lived through your words this magnificent encounter. I have a strong connection with tigers though I have never met one in real life (and I refuse to go to zoos and see wild creatures in cages). I found out that we share something more you are going to laugh I am too allergic to cats! Tiger to me is a symbol of nobility, potential, controlled strength, though merciless when instincts and beloved are in danger.

    • I agree with you about zoos, Sandra. I cry when I see the animals looking out through their cages, so sad. And how the great felines pace back and forth like prisoners breaks my heart. Don’t even get me started on caged gorillas. One of my favorites scenes in a movie ever is in “12 Monkeys” when they free all the animals from the New York zoo. I cheer every time! 🙂 I love what Tiger means to you! Have you seen “Life of Pi” yet?

  2. Dear Sezin, No, I’ve never seen a tiger in the wild. The times I’ve seen a live tiger I was immediately filled with a combination of awe and sadness to see the greatest of the cats pace around in a confined space. But even in the Amsterdam Zoo, Artis, tigers have little ones, as a photo of 1964 proves. Not that I got to see those cubs. The most profound experience I had regarding the great cats was an abstraction, as you can read in the guest post I wrote for Rose Denis’s blog. I like to think that you and I were writing about our tigger experiences at the same time. Each of us paying respect at the end of the Year of the Tiger.

    • Dear Judith,

      I love that we both honoured the Year of the Tiger by writing about it! Hybrid sisters, indeed. My heart breaks when I see tigers in cages, their restless back and forth is such an inhumanity against nature.

      What you mention in your post about the tiger being your totem as well creating your own ancestral rights and rites strikes a chord with me. It’s the reason why I’ve started writing out these animal encounters, to bring together and honour my interactions with incredible creatures. We are on the same page as the Year of the Tiger ends today.

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