The two Sumatran tigers aren’t even fully grown, but they’ll climb to the top of the food chain when they land in Lincoln this fall.
They’ll spend next winter getting used to their new home — an indoor-outdoor enclosure with a pond, stream and rock ledges — and meeting their new keepers at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.
And then, next spring, the city will get its chance to meet them — Lincoln’s newest and biggest predators.
“This is ginormous,” said John Chapo, the zoo’s president and CEO. “It moves the zoo to a whole new level of conservation, education and experiences for our guests.”
The two tigers are among the stars of the zoo’s $16 million, 10-acre expansion, which will also introduce Lincoln to giraffes, spider monkeys and the idea of a year-round zoo. The new habitats and exhibits — now a series of construction zones — are expected to open in spring 2019.
The tigers are brothers from separate litters; one is 2 years old, the other six months older. They were born and live at the San Diego Zoo, where one was hand-raised because of a kidney infection.
The two only recently met, so they could get to know each other before their move to Lincoln.
And the zoo only recently learned it was getting the pair, but it’s thrilled with the news, Chapo said. Sumatran tigers are the world’s most endangered tigers, with fewer than 500 in the wild and about 90 in captivity around the globe.
The tigers’ move to Lincoln is part of a longer-term species survival plan, which dictates the distribution of animals in captivity to try to keep their genetics diverse. Of the 230 or so accredited zoos and aquariums in the country, Lincoln’s zoo will be one of 15 or 16 to house Sumatran tigers.
“We wanted to help save this beautiful and rare cat,” Chapo said. “What we’re doing is best for the species, best for the gene pool.”
The animals will be flown to Lincoln this fall and moved to their enclosure, with heated indoor shelters and an open-air habitat landscaped with trees, rocks and water. They’ll be fed six pounds of mostly raw meat daily. An average adult male Sumatran can grow to about 300 pounds, so they’ll be kept captive by steel-mesh fences 18 to 20 feet high, with a pane of 4-inch-thick glass separating them from the zoo’s guests.
The zoo plans several tiger viewing areas, but the big selfie draw will likely be a replica of a Jeep built on both sides of the glass, so guests can sit safely in the driver’s seat while the tigers — drawn by air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter — ride shotgun.
The tiger enclosure will be the zoo’s second-largest building, behind the under-construction giraffe habitat and its elevated viewing area, where guests can feed the animals 8 feet above the ground.
The zoo is also renovating Ager Play Center, filling it with a simulated rainforest and a multi-level treehouse structure that will allow visitors to climb and crawl through tunnels and come face-to-face, through glass, with the spider monkeys.
And it’s investing in its staff, Chapo said. It’s already hired three full-time professionals, including a veterinarian from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo who worked with its large cats, and will add a half-dozen more full-time employees this summer.
With seasonal part-time employees, the zoo will have more than 125 people working for it this summer, Chapo said. Next year, the zoo will need part-time winter workers, too; all of the new exhibits and some of the old ones will be open year-round.
When the zoo was deciding its future, it conducted extensive research. Along with requests for specific animals, or endangered species, or more interactive exhibits, the public asked for a zoo that doesn’t close in the fall.
“That was a driving factor in all of the research we did,” he said. “Parents and children said, ‘Please, we love the zoo. Can we have it year-round?”
The zoo’s final eight-month season begins Thursday.