A Siberian love triangle brings a natural drama to Baltimore Zoo


Hollywood can't touch this Baltimore soap opera -- a love triangle, of sorts, in which the guy and two gals in the melodrama were chosen for their roles by matchmakers.

The cast features the sleek, amber-eyed Alisa, a Russian-born mother of two brought here from New York to have a relationship with the exotic Fasier.

Unfortunately, this left the equally lovely but moody Roxanne out in the cold -- forced to leave Fasier, her companion since birth, just as they were coming of age.

Oh, did we mention that the players are Siberian tigers?

The setting is the Baltimore Zoo, and the "matchmakers" are directors of the tiger Species Survival Plan for the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. They have determined that Alisa and Fasier "were the most genetically desirable pair in the United States" and will be the only Siberian tigers in the nation approved for breeding this year, said zoo spokeswoman Jane C. Ballentine.

The 12-year-old Alisa -- like many of her species -- has a tragic background. She was bred in the wild and captured as a young cub, her mother an apparent victim of poaching.

Zoo officials say no more than 500 Siberian tigers are believed to remain in the wild, and their numbers are threatened by "an explosion of tiger poaching" since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"A single tiger skin can sell for $10,000, and it is estimated that 50 tigers are being killed each year," Ms. Ballentine said.

Alisa had been a resident of the Bronx Zoo (recently renamed the International Wildlife Conservation Park) since 1982 and gave birth to a pair of cubs there in 1986.

Fasier and Roxanne, both 6 years old, are siblings by adoption -- born in captivity of separate parents but raised together by one of the mother tigers at the Minneapolis Zoo. They were sent together to the Baltimore Zoo as 2-year-old cubs and had been exhibit roommates in the old Main Valley.

Zoological parks participating in the survival plan allow only recommended breeding to take place, and cubs were not in the cards for Fasier and Roxanne. She has been on birth control (a hormonal implant between the shoulder blades, similar to the Norplant system used for humans) since reaching sexual maturity.

To make way for Alisa, Roxanne was moved about 10 cages away to new digs. Keepers say she has never taken changes very well and has chosen to stay in her den since the move rather than prowl around in her new exhibit.

"Even in her habitat with Fasier, if they moved the log around it took her a while to get used to that," Ms. Ballentine said. But she noted that tigers tend to be solitary animals and doubted that Roxanne has been pining away.

The changes have hardly gone unnoticed for Fasier. In the

weeks between Roxanne's move and Alisa's arrival from a routine 30-day zoohospital quarantine, "Fasier was letting out these growls, like 'Rrrrrrrghh,' Ms. Ballentine said. "It wasn't a nasty growl, but maybe some kind of call. But it sounded sad to me, like he really missed her."

In recent days, keepers have watched over the careful introduction of Alisa and Fasier -- first keeping them in separate dens, so they could hear and smell each other, then allowing Alisa to stroll around the exhibit space alone for an hour or two each day "so she could get the lay of the land," Ms. Ballentine said.

"They wanted to make sure she knew where she was, so he wouldn't have any unfair advantage -- like where the pool was, that sort of thing, the Jacuzzi jets and the bar."

And last Saturday, Alisa and Fasier met for the first time face to face, and face to tail, and tail to tail -- beginning a "getting to know you" period of adjustment that keepers hope will lead to the tiger equivalent of romance. ("It's your basic house cat, only they can weigh in at 400 pounds," Ms. Ballentine said.)

"They're very wary of each other," she said. "They both sort of keep their distance. At one point [Thursday], they rubbed their noses. She was kind of sniffing around close to him, and he gave her a big growl and a swipe. He didn't touch her, but it was sort of a 'get away from me' kind of thing."

Finally, at 11:25 a.m. yesterday, the courtship ended and the serious business of procreation began before a small crowd of elementary school students and embarrassed teachers and chaperons.

Isn't love grand?

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