We Alaskans

Tales of the tiger keeper

Jim Rutkowski is the closest thing to a parental figure that a pair of 10-year-old brothers living on Anchorage's Hillside have. He makes sure they eat food that won't upset their "sensitive tummies." When "the boys" are anxious he gives them sweet words of encouragement. And when they make a mess, he cleans it up as quickly as they'll allow.

He's not actually their parent; Rutkowski is their keeper at the Alaska Zoo. Korol and Kunali are actually a pair of Amur tigers -- also known as Siberian tigers, an endangered species that has seen significant population drops at the hands of poachers and deforestation.

In the midst of his daily keeper duties, Rutkowski has also become an advocate.

"We don't know how much longer the Amur tiger will be around," said Rutkowski.

On a crisp fall morning, he's dressed in beige zookeeper garb, complete with a pair of rubber boots and a green Alaska Zoo baseball cap. A "Save the Tigers" button pinned to his clothing creates a glare when the sun light hits it just right.

First Rutkowski drained the tigers' narrow pool. When the water flowed away all that was left were freshly fallen orange and yellow leaves and bits of shredded materials that Korol and Kunali had destroyed. He used an old metal dustpan, quickly swept it up and tossed the debris inside a large black trash bag. Then he used a hose and a powerful spigot, which could only be turned on and off with an oversized wrench, to rinse the concrete structure. He didn't refill the pool, though. Rutkowski said he doesn't want it to freeze as winter hits the Last Frontier.

Boys are stubborn

As the zoo on O'Malley Road in South Anchorage opened its gates, people trickled by the exhibit, attempting to peer over the top of the metal fence, but disappointed to see humans instead of tigers.

"Tigers are pretty much nocturnal anyway," said Rutkowski, as spectators looked down into the exhibit. Rutkowski said there are little things he can do to get them moving but reiterated on several occasions that "the boys," as he affectionately called them, are stubborn.

The tigers are a main attraction at the zoo, though zoo director Pat Lampi said the polar bears are probably more popular. "I guess for the next animal president election (conducted earlier this year among visitors), Ahpun (the polar bear) should see if she can retain her office against one of the tigers," said Lampi. "Last time she won against Denali, the alpha wolf."

But regardless, Rutkowski cares for them the best he can in the hopes of giving them good lives in captivity, which he understands is not an ideal circumstance for any animal.

As he cleaned the pool he spoke loudly, occasionally laughing at his own tiger jokes. Rutkowski could make small talk using interesting tidbits of tiger information he's gathered in more than a decade at the Alaska Zoo.

"Tigers are good swimmers, you know?" Rutkowski said, smiling, and the pink of his lips were highlighted by his white teeth, mustache and goatee. "In the wild they swim to cover up their scent."

Rutkowski has been working as a tiger keeper at the Alaska Zoo since 1999. At first, he was just a relief keeper, helping tend to animals when their normal keepers took days off, but then he found his own shift. Now, he oversees the back corner of the zoo where tigers, Dall sheep and snow leopards reside. "I love all of them, and I take good care of all of them," said Rutkowski. "But tigers by far are my favorite because they are such a majestic and beautiful animal. They are critically endangered and there is something about tigers that make them very appealing."

As Rutkowski spoke, the roar of the tigers, who were locked up in their dens, echoed. According to Rutkowski, the brothers know which den is theirs and only go inside when it's time to eat their "exotic meat blend. "If they ain't hungry, there is nothing in the world you can do to get them to come inside to eat," said Rutkowski.

Rutkowski sometimes speaks of Korol and Kunali as if they are human, but their occasional ferocious roars can prompt the wolves in the exhibit next door to howl back. It serves as a reminder that no matter how much he feels likes he has bonded with the brothers, they're still wild cats and they won't hesitate to capitalize on his human vulnerability. "Don't ever try and out-swim a tiger because you won't," said Rutkowski. "Don't ever try and outrun a tiger because they can run over 40 miles an hour and not only that, but they can jump over 30 feet, so chances are you can't out-do anything a tiger can do."

Consequently, he triple-checks all of the locks, gates and bolts, which act as the only layer of separation between his daily duties and them. As he puts it: "One mistake and there won't be a second."

Field experience

Although Rutkowski is their keeper, he doesn't handle them. It's too dangerous. Rutkowski considers himself a lucky man, though. If he dies today, he'd die happy because of his life working with animals.

Most zookeepers have a college degree these days, but when Rutkowski was trained, he didn't need one and he still doesn't have one. According to Lampi, fewer people were looking to do field work in Alaska years ago, and having a degree is "not the all-inclusive answer."

"He was a good worker, passionate about the animals, had good common sense and was eager to learn. So we trained him for the position when he expressed interest and a position was available. Over the years, I have had a number of people that did not work out that had degrees, but a poor work ethic and not much common sense."

Lampi can relate. He was a keeper for seven years and a curator for 13 and has been the director for eight. "I do not have a degree, just 28 years of experience," Lampi wrote in a email.

And despite the fact Rutkowski doesn't have a degree, he comes across as passionate about his work as he tries to understand the tigers the best he can.

"When a tiger is happy and wants to greet you he will usually let out a chuff." Rutkowski pauses and imitates the sounds, which reflect a very deep purr. "That is one way a tiger will say hello. It's a friendly hello, but then they can turn around in the next second and roar at you, or growl or hiss. They are very apprehensive of everything around them."

Korol and Kunali weigh about 450 pounds apiece and are about 10 feet from their heads to the end of their tails, Rutkowski estimates. He calls them small for their species, as Amur tigers, the world's largest cats, can weigh up to 660 pounds in the wild.

The brothers came to Alaska six years ago, at age 4, from the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in New York. They were born into captivity. And like all of the animals at the Alaska Zoo, they're in captivity because their chances of survival in the wild are slim to none.

Lampi said because of the Alaska Zoo's solid reputation and a suitable living space for tigers, obtaining them proved straightfoward. "It is a good process. They want to see financial information to make sure you are a solid organization. They want to see resumes of staff and veterinarians to know we have the expertise. They want to see details of the exhibit. They want to see medical records of the same or similar species that you have held in the past."

In the wild, Amur tigers primarily live in eastern Russian birch forests, surviving in climates similar to Alaska's. About 450 tigers remain, an increase from the 1940s, when hunting drove the population to the brink of extinction with about four dozen animals left. Russia now protects them.

Stimulating scents

Korol is the playful one, while Kunali is the alpha, said Rutkowski, who seems to have an endless list of stories about them.

Once, he left his jacket in the exhibit by accident. When he realized it, the tigers were already out of their dens. "The boys were having a heyday" with his Alaska Zoo jacket. Rutkowski recovered the jacket, but said the sides are shredded. He still has it and jokes that it could make a good Halloween costume.

Then there was the time he learned about the tigers' perfume obsession. Rutkowski's always looking for stimulants and enrichment toys, and the tigers appreciate a "sharp scent." Catnip didn't faze them, so one summer an intern suggested splashing perfume on a few of their things. "I said, 'OK, go ahead,' and the tigers just went crazy for it," said Rutkowski. "They started rolling on the ground, playing and grabbing at each other's legs. I went, 'Wow, this is pretty good stuff.' So I ended up going to buy some and it's like 45 bucks a bottle. One was called 'Dreams' and the other was 'Love Etc.' Fitting for the cats -- they just have to have something exotic."

Endangered Amur tigers at The Alaska Zoo from Alaska Dispatch on Vimeo.

Rutkowski said he still occasionally splashes the perfume onto their toys, but he can't do it every day because they'd surely get bored.

"If you give it to them once every couple of weeks it acts like, oh, can I say, an aphrodisiac? They just go crazy; love is in the air," said Rutkowski, with a boyish grin.

He also gives them old pizza boxes, phone books and oversized appliance boxes as they just "get a kick out of tearing things up."

And during the Alaska hunting season, the tigers feast. Hunters donate moose and caribou carcasses and the tigers enjoy picking at them throughout the day, said Rutkowski. For their everyday diet, "the boys" eat an exotic meat blend of about 15 pounds a day per tiger. Lampi said it costs about $150 a week.

But even though these stories are happy memories that Rutkowski cherishes, sadness sometimes strikes because he knows Korol and Kunali are members of a suffering species fighting to survive.

Raising awareness

Rutkowski points at his button, tapping it a couple of times. He said he's going to sell them in the gift shop, along with bumper stickers and note cards, and give the money to programs that aim to save tigers. The boyish grin was gone.

"I know it doesn't seem like much, but every little bit helps. Everything is so busy these days and moves so fast, people don't really take time to think things through. So maybe if someone sees this button, it will act like a reminder. It will make them aware of a problem, because if we don't help them, they won't be around much longer."

Rutkowski strolled into the tiger den. On the other side of the gate, the tigers let out deep roars. The sight of unfamiliar faces made them suspicious, said Rutkowski.

He speaks to them softly, cooing and talking in a tone that one might speak to a small child in. He tells Korol and Kunali things like "it's OK, just calm down." Or "you're such a handsome boy, aren't you?"

At his words, they relax a bit, lie down and watch over the small group of humans nearby. Rutkowski pulls out a bag with chunks of red meat or "treats" and the tigers stand once again, this time more relaxed. They gently pull the meat out of Rutkowski's fingertips with their large teeth, then use their paws to push the meat into their mouths.

"That's a good boy," Rutkowski tells them. "Yes, yes, that is a very good boy."

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.