Mo. tigers fans meet the real thing

Fairgoers earn their stripes in tiger-preservation education from trainers.
Friday, August 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:07 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

SEDALIA — Minerva does ballet. Avra is a good jumper. Nina shows off her moonwalk. Raj gives good hugs. The female performers weigh between 200 to 400 pounds, the males weigh between 400 to 600 pounds. While you may think that your groceries bills are high, these nine athletes eat about 40,000 pounds of food a year.

They are the key performers in the Bengal tiger show, a new attraction this year at the Missouri State Fair. The tigers, native to India, reside in Florida’s panhandle at the Marcan Tiger Preserve. The 88-acre preserve is home to 49 tigers; the owners strive to improve bloodlines for the endangered species.

The troupe has three of the 20 snow white tigers left in the world, said Mike Inks, trainer and the show’s announcer. Two are 7-month old cubs, Lazarus and Canpur. The troupe is completed by the three other color varieties: standard, golden tabby and white and black stripe.

“It’s nice to have all four color varieties, but breeding for healthy animals is our goal,” Andy Spolyar, one of three trainers and handlers, said.

The tigers travel to 10 to 12 shows per year. Lacking the challenges provided by life in the wild, the tigers exhibit neurotic behaviors when they haven’t performed in a while. They pace and lose their appetites, Spolyar said.

“The tigers get to the point where they thrive on performing and depend on the mental stimulation it provides,” he said.

The owner of the preserve, Josip Marcan, began showing the animals six years ago. Only 13 of the 88 acres have fences and enclosures suitable for the tigers, Spolyar said. Through the proceeds from the traveling show Marcan hopes to develop the rest of the land.

“Josip drives an old beat up car and hasn’t fixed up his house,” Spolyar said. “Everything he has goes to the tigers.”

Habitat encroachment, an estimated $6-billion poaching industry and irresponsible breeding programs are causing the Bengal tiger to climb the list of endangered species, Inks said.

Spolyar said he hopes the shows will increase awareness to the problem of irresponsible breeding while raising money for the development of the preserve, which will become a non-profit organization this winter.

Many fairgoers have received the message.

“We got here 25 minutes before the show. If you don’t show up ahead of time, there are no seats,” Judy Toedebusch, of Wentzville, said.

The Bengal tiger show takes place daily at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 and 6 p.m.

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