CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Zoo Curator Mark Yannotti feeds Sooner, a 12-week-old tiger, who was donated to the Hillcrest Park Zoo from an Oklahoma exotic animal facility.
When he wakes, he bounds to his feet and goes looking for his bottle, finding it quickly in the hands of his mother. After a few suckles, “Sooner” is curled nose-to-tail again and back in a heavy sleep on the floor.
And while he snoozes his “mother,” Zoo Curator Mark Yannotti, is trying to get things done around the office at Hillcrest Zoo before the cub wakes up again.
Sooner, a donation from an Oklahoma exotic animal facility, arrived Thursday at the zoo.
He was being used in a magic show to raise money for the animals at the Oklahoma park, but Yannotti said the facility management knew the Clovis zoo was looking for a tiger and decided to donate him.
At 12 weeks old, he is still dependent and spends all his time with Yannotti, something that will change in the next month or so as he is transitioned to the tiger pen at the zoo.
In the meantime, the cub goes everywhere Yannotti goes, including making a trip to the bank and visits Tuesday to city offices.
Yannotti said the Bengal tiger does well with people but gets overwhelmed with the attention he receives, so they keep visits short.
“If it gets too much, we’ll kind of pack it up and go,” he said.
“You kind of don’t make a tiger do what a tiger doesn’t want to do, even at this age… (He wants affection) when he wants it. It’s got to be on his terms all the time.”
And when Sooner wants affection from Yannotti, he isn’t timid about it, climbing into his lap and pushing his face to the human one in tiger “kisses.”
Zookeeper Lisa Fox said sometimes Sooner stumbles when he walks, clumsy and awkward because his paws are too large for his approximately 30-pound frame.
Already, Yannotti said the tiger cub — who will grow to up to 400 pounds — is strong and capable of hurting with his playfulness.
And playful he is, knocking all the items off Yannotti’s desk and jumping into water when he sees it.
“He can lay a pretty good bite on you,” he said. “He can go from as docile as a kitten to as wild as an animal in a matter of minutes.”
Which is why Sooner’s time shadowing his human caretaker will be short.
When he starts teething at 4 months old, though he probably wouldn’t mean too, he could present a danger to handlers and will need to begin living on his own in his permanent display pen.
The zoo began looking for a tiger soon after Blondie the tiger died in December.
Until Sooner is moved into the tiger pen, Yannotti said zoo visitors can catch a glimpse of him through the window at the office by the front gate, or may catch him out on the grounds during the day with his psuedo-mother.
Director Vincent Romero said the zoo may hold a contest to allow local school children to give Sooner a new name and “Sooner,” a reference to his home state, will become his last name.