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The biggest cat in the world

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27 April 2013


Zita the ligress, pictured in the Novosibirsk Zoo. Picture: Alexander Zhiltsov

'I've never raised such a healthy and joyful cat,' says her proud head keeper Roza Solovyeva.

'Zita is kind, if you can say this about a wild animal, and smiley.

'Children adore her, and very often newlyweds come to pose with Zita in the background - they believe she brings them luck, and perhaps she does.

'Anyway, this entertains Zita, who concentrates on trying to catch  the bride's dress. She's never managed it, thankfully, as I and my colleagues are always close by and making sure nothing untoward happens.'

Zita was born of an unexpected liaison at the zoo between a Bengal tigress, found in the foothills of the Himalayas, and an African lion.

The combination of lion and tiger - known to biologists as ligers - is officially the largest cat in the world. The very few historic accounts of such creatures suggest they are extremely aggressive. 

Zita the ligress Novosibirsk Zoo

Zita the ligress Novosibirsk Zoo

Zita, eight years old star of Novosibirsk Zoo, Westen Siberia. Pictures: Alexander Zhiltsov

Roza believes Zita to be not only the only ligress in Russia but the only one ever born or to live in the former Soviet Union. She is one of a handful in the world - all of them born in captivity since the creatures would not come across each other in the wild where their habitats hardly coincide. 

'It's interesting to see how Zita has inherited different habits from her parents: she sleeps on the snow, like tigers may do, even when it reaches minus 40C,' says Roza.

'She loves swimming and is very playful. Zita looks quite like her mother, the tigress, with visible stripes on the back and the tail - but the type and colour of her hair are definitely inherited from her father, the lion.'

Her birth in summer 2004 - looking like a lion but with tiger stripes - made news around the world when it was announced after an initial news blackout to prevent undue attention on the rare ligress and her liger brother. 

A British newspaper, the Daily Express, waxed lyrical with its headline 'Liger Liger Burning Bright' and quoted the deputy director of Novosibirsk Zoo, Olga Shilo, explaining: 'Zita's parents have known each other since their early days, when they were quite young. The keepers saw that they overcame any natural enmity but we had no idea they would, or even could, mate. Everyone was more than a little surprised when a flame of passion consumed these two very different childhood friends'.

Zita the ligress Novosibirsk Zoo

Zita pictured as a cub, weeks after she was born in 2004. Picture: The Siberian Times

UK expert Sarah Christie, carnivore programme manager at the Zoological Society of London, was cited to explain the union was indeed rare but not surprising, considering the parents shared the same cage. 

'Lions and tigers share a common ancestor and if you put a male lion and a female tiger into the same enclosure, it is fairly likely that they will do what comes naturally, even if it doesn't seem very natural to us', she said.

'Animals of the same sex are likely to attack each other but lions and tigers of the opposite sex often get on well. Sometimes a bit too well'.

Zita the ligress Novosibirsk Zoo

Zita the ligress, pictured in Novosibirsk Zoo, Western Siberia. Picture: Tatyana Gavrilova

Early on, the ligress got used to media attention. A report on her by Russian Centre TV on 9 December 2004 noted: 'The main diversion in the life of five-month-old Zita is reporters' visits.

'Since the news of her birth got out, it has been hard to keep visitors away.

'The young carnivore has not yet acquired an arrogant attitude and enjoys the attention of others.

'This daughter of a tigress and a lion is a love child. Zita's mum and dad have known each other since their early days.

'They even shared the same enclosure, so everyone around was more than a little surprised when a flame of passion consumed these two very different childhood friends.

'Zita is her parents' first-born. However, the daughter of the king of beasts clearly takes after the dad. The only thing she has inherited from her mother tigress are fuzzy stripes about her snout, back and tail. Born in Siberia, Zita is afraid of lemurs and their squeals.'

The report showed footage of the infant ligress backing away nervously at the sound of a lemur.

This account concluded: 'The mixture of two predatory tempers is already unmistakable. You had better not put your finger into the little ligress's maw.'

Zita the ligress Novosibirsk Zoo

Zita is reported to be one of the most cheerful and peaceful animals of the Novosibirsk Zoo. Picture: Alexander Zhiltsov

There was also early interest from America in jointly studying the near-unique creature. 

'The zoo has turned these proposals down for now to let Zita grow older and stronger, if only just a little. Nobody knows how resistant to the rigours of the wide world a crossbreed between the tiger and the lion is.'

It seems at least this question is finally answered.  Zita is robust, as her many fans at Novosibirsk Zoo - one of the finest in the world - will eagerly testify.

The zoo and visit to Zita can be an attraction for travellers stopping over on the Trans Siberian Railway.

Zita the ligress Novosibirsk Zoo

Zita the ligress, pictured in Novosibirsk Zoo, Western Siberia. Picture: Alexander Zhiltsov

The phenomenon of cubs born to lions and tigers has long stirred interest, even in royal circles. Two liger cubs born in 1837 were exhibited to Britain's King William IV and his daughter who later became Queen Victoria.

In the 1930s, Bloemfontein Zoo in South Africa, put a lion and a tiger together in a cage and were surprised when they mated. The resulting ligers soon gained a reputation for their impressive size and were exported to zoos around the world.

'Even liger dung became famous - it was thought to scare off other animals and was often sprayed on lawns in South Africa to ward off stray dogs,' it was claimed.

Tokkelos, the last Bloemfontein Zoo liger, died in 1995, aged 20.

In an alarming ritual, every Sunday at feeding time he would charge at the keeper, roaring and thrashing his head around. Usually the keepers escaped unharmed but in 1985 one employee wasn't so lucky. Tokkelos managed to grab hold of him as he was trying to run out of the cage and tore him to pieces. After that, the poor keeper's replacement fed Tokkelos from behind a special iron grid.

Last year there were reports of two liger cubs being nursed by a dog at a zoo in Weihai, eastern China, after they were rejected by their mother. Four cubs were born at the Xixiakou Wildlife Zoo but only two survived.

Comments (1)

Zita is impossibly gorgeous and seems to be really happy in Novosibirsk Zoo ))))
May, China
01/05/2013 01:32

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