Zoo Happenings

Virginia Zoo Announces Death From Cancer of Siberian Tiger

shereNorfolk, VA (MAY 6, 2010) - The Virginia Zoo is deeply saddened today to announce the death from cancer of one its beloved Siberian tigers, Shere Khan, and the diagnosis of a different cancer in her sister Shaka Khan.  Shere Khan was euthanized today at the advanced age of 18 years just three weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

“The entire Zoo family is grief-stricken,” Executive Director Greg Bockheim said.    Zookeepers observed what appeared to be a mass on the left side of Shere’s abdomen on April 14. A physical was performed on April 16, and the lesion was biopsied. Squamous cell carcinomas – aggressive abdominal skin tumors that metastasize quickly – were found.  Zoo veterinarian, Dr. John Sanginario, did not recommended surgery because, given Shere’s age and condition, she would likely not survive the procedure and aftercare.    

cub“Our primary objective was to keep her comfortable and stress-free,” says Bockheim. “Her treatment for the past several days has involved supportive care and attempts to improve her appetite.”

“Shere Khan and Shaka Khan were among the most popular animals at the Zoo,” Bockheim said.  The tigers have been off exhibit to Zoo visitors since June 2008 for the construction of the Asia – Trail of the Tiger expansion. Their exhibit has remained intact during the process, but is located in a hard hat zone inaccessible to visitors.  “From the point of view of the tigers’” said Bockheim, “Shere and Shaka continued to receive excellent care and attention from the people they loved most, zookeepers and curators, and also received attention from admiring construction workers.”

feeding“Most recently, having the habitat off-exhibit has enabled us to keep Shere comfortable and stress-free in the home she’s known for years. This would have been harder to accomplish had her exhibit been publicly accessible,” Bockheim said.

Also in April, Shere’s sister, Shaka Khan, was diagnosed with cancer.  Keepers observed a growth on her left elbow, the biopsy results showing a malignant, slow-growing, low grade fibrosarcoma.

“The only treatment available is amputation of the leg,” said Dr. Sanginario. “However, this is not recommended for a tiger of such advanced age as arthritic conditions are likely to develop in the remaining limbs reducing the tiger’s quality of life even more.”

At this time, Shaka Khan is expected to live another 10 -12 months.

bamboo“The life expectancy of tigers in the wild is 15 years,” said Bockheim. “In captivity, it can be 15 to 20 years, so 18 years of age is considered to be elderly for these cats. Despite their enormous size, they have similar life expectancies of domesticate house cats.”

The tiger pair won the hearts of Hampton Roads in the early 1990s, when a regional campaign raised funding to build them a home at the Virginia Zoo.

Originally, their stay in Norfolk was intended to be temporary.  They had been seized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service from a private owner who was apprehended for illegally transporting the exotic pair. The agency asked the Zoo to house the tigers until the court case was resolved. Because they were so young and required night feedings, zookeepers and curators hand raised the cubs, bringing them home at night.  The Zoo curator’s golden retriever joined the team by playing with the babies, cleaning them and sleeping with them.  Nevertheless, the Zoo did not have an appropriate enclosure to house full grown tigers and was prepared to help them find a new home. 

Local Exxon gas station owners decided to launch a fundraising campaign to create a permanent home.  Many recall driving Hampton Roads highways seeing stuffed toy tiger tails bouncing in the wind attached to gas tanks.  The plush tails were sold for $1 each, and the rest is history.

The tigers became iconic animals for the Virginia Zoo, and their arrival became a turning point, ushering in a transformation to create realistic, open spaces for the animals. That same year, the City of Norfolk and Virginia Zoological Society unveiled the master plan that focused on animal exhibits with a geographical theme – the first big expansion being Africa.  The second expansion, Asia – Trail of the Tiger, is under construction. 

“We knew the tigers were elderly cats and could only be expected to live a few more years, but no one was prepared to lose them before the Asia exhibit opens,” says Bockheim. “Tigers are an important, highly endangered species native to Asia and are one of the centerpieces of this new exhibit.  We received recommendations to exhibit Malayan tigers along with our present tigers last year.  These beautiful animals will always be part of the Virginia Zoo and even though the Shere Kahn and Shaka Kahn will be gone, Asia will be part of their legacy.”

Memorial donations will be accepted in honor of Shaka Kahn and Shere Kahn. These funds will be used to create a sculpture in their honor that will be prominently displayed in the new Asia exhibit.


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