Ligers Make a "Dynamite" Leap Into the Limelight
for National Geographic News
|August 5, 2005|
Photo Gallery: "Dynamite" Pictures of Ligers >>
It's half lion, half tiger, and completely real. Now thanks to a cameo in the 2004 cult movie Napoleon Dynamite, the liger has leaped into the limelight, prompting fans to ask, What are they really like?
The faintly striped, shaggy-maned creatures are the offspring of male lions and female tigers, which gives them the ability to both roar like lions and chuff like tigersa supposedly affectionate sound that falls somewhere between a purr and a raspberry.
Weighing in at about a thousand pounds (450 kilograms) each, they typically devour 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of raw meat in a meal.
"For the most part they're really laid back," said Jason Hutcherson, vice president of Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Georgia. "They like to swim and play in the water."
The drive-through wildlife park is believed to have the country's largest concentration of ligers, housing ten of the massive cats.
Since 1999 the park has bred its male lion and female tiger many times, producing about 24 cubs.
Not all of them have been healthy, though.
"We've had 3 out of 24 that, for all practical purposes, were normal but developed as they grew older some kind of neurological disorder," Hutcherson said.
Autopsies didn't reveal what caused the cubs to develop "head shakes," so park staff "chalked it up to a genetic defect," Hutcherson said.
Accredited zoos frown on the practice of mixing two different species and have never bred ligers, says Jane Ballentine, a spokesperson for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
"Keeping the two species separate has always been standard procedure," she said.
Long before fans heard Napoleon claim that the liger is "pretty much my favorite animal," there have been rumors of the hybrid's existence in the wild.
Lion-tiger mating occurs in captivity. But it does not happen in the wild, probably for the same reason humans do not breed with gorillas or chimps.
"Crossing the species line" does not generally occur in the wild, because "it would result in diminished fitness of the offspring," said Ronald Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.
Geography is another obstacle to natural lion-tiger mating. Wild tigers mainly inhabit Asia, whereas the lion's current natural habitat is almost entirely in Africa.
The Gir National Forest in India is the only place in the world where tiger and lion ranges overlap, fueling speculation that wild ligers roamed the area hundreds of years ago.
Tilson doesn't believe it.
"This would be highly improbable, because the Gir forest is really very dry and not optimal tiger habitat," he said.
A Liger Named Patrick
Perched on the edge of the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles, California, a lone liger, named Patrick, lives at Shambala Preserve, which bills itself as "a haven for endangered exotic big cats." (See photos of Patrick.)
"The interesting thing about these animals is that they have the best qualities of the tiger and the best of the lion," said movie actress and conservationist Tippi Hedren, who has run Shambala since 1972. "Those qualities manifest themselves in the fact that they like to be in the water [a tiger trait] and are very social [a lion trait]."
Many of the cats at the 80-acre (32-hectare) sanctuary are orphans or castoffs from circuses, zoos, and private owners who could no longer care for the animals.
Patrick arrived at the sanctuary seven years ago after federal authorities shutdown the roadside zoo in Illinois where he lived.
The 800-pound (360-kilogram) liger was kept in such a small cage that his hind-leg muscles had started to atrophy, said Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.
Patrick's compound at Shambala allows him plenty of room for exercise. A stream runs through his compound, so his tiger half can play in the water or his lion half can stay out of it, whichever he chooses.
Liger in the Hills
Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Spearfish, South Dakota, recently acquired a liger named Samson and 48 other big cats after federal authorities closed a Minnesota wildlife facility.
"Everyone who comes wants to see Samson," said Trevor Smith, an environmental biologist and sanctuary board member.
The four-and-a-half-year-old hybrid tips the scales at over a thousand pounds (over 450 kilograms), and eats 30 to 50 pounds (14 to 23 kilograms) of raw meat every other day.
"Samson is really picky. He'll only eat beef, elk, and venison," Smith said. "We try and feed him chicken, like the other animals, but he won't touch it. He'll let it rot in the sun."
The sanctuarywhose mission is to educate people about wild animals and emphasize that they don't make good petshas seen a surge in visitors since Samson's arrival in June.
Much of the public's curiosity about the liger stems from Napoleon Dynamite, Smith said.
Smith worries that Samson is "becoming too much of a freak show."
If Samson had his way, Smith said, he'd sleep away the day inside, away from public view.
"We've had a huge ethical debate at the sanctuary on whether or not we should lock him out of his shed," Smith said. "But at the same time, he's why the visitors are coming."
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