Two captive-bred tigers have arrived at the Oakland Zoo

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A desperate plea early last month ended in a quickly organized four-state rescue effort that saved the lives of four big cats and brought two tigers to the Oakland Zoo.

Lola and Mia were taken from a sleazy roadside attraction in Oklahoma where they had started life as props in a mostly unregulated industry that sells tiger and lion cub encounters for the pleasure of tourists.

“Whenever someone has their picture taken with an animal,” says Colleen Kinzley, vice president of animal care at the Oakland Zoo, “people need to know that those animals are in pain.”

The Oklahoma attraction had been cited for multiple animal safety and welfare violations in 2008 and shut down by the US Department of Agriculture. But its owner, who is believed to have ties to the infamous “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, continued to operate until fairly recently.

Hospital keeper Nikki Adams trains with tiger Mia at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from an Oklahoma facility and is caring currently of two of the tigers in their hospital. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

It was Kinzley who received the frantic call from a woman seeking help for the animals at the now closed roadside ‘zoo’. The creatures were neglected, the caller said, malnourished and living in squalid conditions.

The Oakland Zoo is part of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance and has been a longtime supporter of rescuing commercially exploited and privately owned wildlife. The plans for the rescue of the tiger were quickly put in place. With Kinzley and the zoo directing operations, the alliance partnered with Arkansas-based Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, which was closer to the site. A Southern California rescue group, Lions, Tigers and Bears, offered their transport van and the team set off.

What they found was even worse than expected. Cats were crammed into rickety cages and an elderly, arthritic lion needed immediate medical attention.

OAKLAND, CA - July 7: A tiger named Mia receives targeted training from a hospital keeper at the Oakland Zoo Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, California.  The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from a facility in Oklahoma and is currently caring for two of the tigers at their hospital.  (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: A tiger named Mia receives targeted training from a hospital keeper at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, California. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from a facility in Oklahoma and is currently caring for two of the tigers at their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Lola, a hybrid tigress, had a facial deformity caused by an untreated chronic abscess. She also suffers from bow legs, possibly a result of her mixed breeding – she’s part tiger, part lion, which doesn’t occur naturally in the wild.

Mia and another tiger, both believed to be younger than Lola and the lion, were in better shape but still suffered from neglect. As a cub, Mia’s claws on her front legs and hind legs had been removed.

The other tiger and lion are now with the Arkansas Rescue Group. And Oakland Zoo staff were thrilled to welcome Lola and Mia on June 10. The zoo had four tigers – two sets of sisters rescued from the small animal industry – but the last one died in 2021, leaving the tiger enclosure vacant.

Work has begun to spruce up the compound, Kinzley says, adding additional platforms and areas for Lola and Mia to explore. It is not yet known if the couple can enjoy the space together or if it will have to be separated by a fence. Despite their years at the former petting zoo, they never had direct contact with each other.

Lola and Mia were relegated to tiny cages after they outgrew the “cute little one” stage and became harder to control. For the past 10 to 15 years, they have remained in these cages amid growing piles of droppings. Fed chickens full of feathers, they received only basic care and little interaction with humans or other animals.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 7: Vice President of Animal Care, Conservation and Research Colleen Kinzley is pictured in the tiger enclosure as it undergoes renovations at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, Calif.  The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from an Oklahoma facility and is currently caring for two of the tigers in their hospital.  (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
OAKLAND, CA – July 7: Vice President of Animal Care, Conservation and Research Colleen Kinzley is pictured in the tiger enclosure as it is being renovated at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, Calif. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from an Oklahoma facility and is currently caring for two of the tigers in their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Nikki Adams, an assistant at the Oakland Zoo Hospital, is working with the tigers on basic training, which will make their care easier. By rewarding desirable behaviors, tigers will eventually show up for checkups, injections, and treatments. Without the training, Adams says, the tigers would have to be tossed with a tranquilizer gun whenever they needed treatment.

Although the tigers have been neglected, they are doing very well, Adams says. When Lola first entered her pen, she didn’t know what to make of the straw piled up and strewn across the concrete floor. She patted it with her paws, warily, but within minutes she was rolling in it and screaming her approval.

Mia was very scared at first, Adams says, hissing, growling and screaming. She too was quick to recognize the improved accommodation and although she is quite talkative, she is clearly happy to be able to explore her enclosure and venture outside.

“She’s completely changed,” Adams says.

The tigers will remain in quarantine for at least 30 days and then slowly be introduced to each other. They are currently looking at each other through a chain-link fence.

Lola will have her first full exam next week, said Dr. Alex Herman, vice president of veterinary services. Mia is scheduled for the following week. The medical staff will then learn the extent of the problems that may have developed during those years of neglect, assess their general health and get a better idea of ​​their age. Both will be sterilized later.

Herman says a veterinary dentist will examine Lola’s tooth issues and x-rays will be taken of Mia’s feet to check for deformities caused by declawing, which is often not done by vets but by owners without anesthesia.

“They came from a terrible situation, living in misery, without veterinary care, without treatment,” Herman says. “Animals can have a lot of physical and behavioral problems, but they are doing very well.”

  • OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: A tiger named Lola is...

    OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: A tiger named Lola is pictured in an enclosure at the Oakland Zoo Animal Hospital on Thursday July 7, 2022 in Oakland, Calif. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from a facility in Oklahoma and is currently caring for two of the tigers in their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA - JULY 7: Vice President of Animal Care,...

    OAKLAND, CA – July 7: Vice President of Animal Care, Conservation and Research Colleen Kinzley is pictured in the tiger enclosure as it is being renovated at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, Calif. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from an Oklahoma facility and is currently caring for two of the tigers in their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA - JULY 7: A tiger named Lola roams...

    OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: A tiger named Lola wanders through an enclosure at the Oakland Zoo Animal Hospital on Thursday, July 7, 2022 in Oakland, California. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from an Oklahoma facility and is currently caring for two of the tigers at their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA - JULY 7: A worker erects a new fence...

    OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: A worker erects a new fence in the tigers enclosure while it is being renovated at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, California. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from a facility in Oklahoma and is currently caring for two of the tigers in their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: Hospital caretaker Nikki Adams makes...

    OAKLAND, CA – JULY 7: Hospital keeper Nikki Adams trains with a tiger named Mia at the Oakland Zoo on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Oakland, California. The Oakland Zoo organized the rescue of four tigers from a facility in Oklahoma and is currently caring for two of the tigers at their hospital. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JULY 7: Vice President of Veterinary Services,...

    OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – JULY 7: Vice President of Veterinary Services Dr. Alex Herman is pictured in the large animal treatment room at the Oakland Zoo Veterinary Hospital on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The zoo Oakland organized the rescue of four tigers from one in Oklahoma and are currently caring for two of the tigers in their hospital. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)

Both Kinzley and Herman said the treatment of Lola and Mia illustrates the need to pass the proposed federal Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would govern the trade, possession and display of big cats, including the restriction of direct contact between the public and animals. The bill was introduced in the House last year, but has not made much headway.

Currently, the ownership and breeding of exotic animals is controlled by state laws. California has strict laws, but other states, including Oklahoma and Texas, are lenient.

“There are said to be more tigers in Texas than there are in the wild,” Kinzley says.

The tigers are considered critically endangered, Herman says, due to habitat loss and poaching.

“We need them on the planet,” Herman says.

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