Any regular visitor to the cat complex at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium has probably noticed Mai, the three-legged tiger. Mai, who is about 18 years old, has been at the zoo since 2003 and is beloved not only for her grace in navigating her environment despite her missing limb, but also for her personable demeanor.
“She’s very friendly, which is odd because she came from the wild,” says Mike Verbrigghe, lead keeper of cats at the zoo. This is probably due to the lost leg, which was amputated after Mai had injured it in a snare trap as a cub. Zoo Melaka, in Southern Malaysia, rescued and rehabbed her for several years before Mai came to Omaha. “She was forced to rely on humans from a young age, so she’s pretty trusting. In fact, she’ll look for attention from just about anyone.”
Verbrigghe says that some people come to the zoo specifically to see Mai, and she is a popular beneficiary of the zoo’s adoption program. Her fame has helped make her a great ambassador for her species as well. “A lot of people have stepped up and said they’d like the cats to have a new home,” says Verbrigghe, who says that the ultimate goal is for Mai and the other tigers to have a more natural and bigger environment.
“Eventually, we’re going to do this for all the cats,” Verbrigghe says. The lion exhibit -- which is part of the current African Grasslands expansion and will feature a pride of lions surveying the zoo from rocky outcroppings high atop a hill -- is just the beginning.
Beyond her obvious charms, Mai is valuable from a conservation standpoint as well. She has had three litters of cubs (totaling eight cubs in all) that are now adult tigers at other zoos. Since Mai was born in the wild, the birth of these cats meant the first time their particular genes have been represented in captivity – a boon for sustaining the captive population of tigers and for tiger genetics as a whole.
While Mai is considered a senior now (the average lifespan for a tiger in captivity is 18-20 years), and her keepers have always taken a few special cautions due to her leg, she shows little sign of slowing down. “We monitor all our cats several times every day to see if there’s something abnormal, but she doesn’t require any special monitoring,” says Verbrigghe. “She can run just fine.”