The Breath of a Bengal by Terry Hill                                 " Help Save Some Tigers

   I have smelled the breath of a Bengal Tiger and lived to tell the tale. This is true. 

   It's not that I am a Tiger tamer by profession. Although my love of cats could easily lead me there someday. Neither am I insanely brave or a foolish enough to approach a full grown Bengal Tiger. Unless I knew I was safe. Obviously I was, or you wouldn't be reading this and all that remained of me would be smelly tiger poo.

  Tiger poo smells bad, very bad. As does their breath. So bad that I could only remain nose to nose with the beast for a few minutes. I wanted to stay much longer, and would do it again in a heartbeat with effective noseplugs. Only with noseplugs

   I was in Korea at the Pusan zoo. I normally don’t go to zoos..they’re too sad.  Cheetahs pacing 20 foot cages, never to run. Birds in small cages never to fly free and far. Orca and dolphin in bad smelling water, swimming slow in small circles . Lonely elephants and other social animals, exhibiting neurotic behaviors, dying early deaths from broken, lonely hearts.

  Yes, the zookeepers know this, and they do their best, but if all the money spent on zoos were spent on buying habitats and keeping humans out of them, it would be better for all the species, including our own. The arguments for species preservation and human education don’t fly with me.  Take the humans to the edge of real, preserved habitats, (or inside by virtual means) and let them watch the creatures' true, natural behavior. More respect will be gained by the people for animals and the land  than at any zoo full of fake fiberglass rocks, non-native vegetation and paved people paths.

  Nevertheless, I had an afternoon free, it was a hot and sunny summer day and the zoo was close and cheap.

  I passed the cage of the pacing cheetah, rounded the corner and there in front of me was the tiger cage. Bengals it said. But there were no tigers to be seen. They weren’t outside pacing like the cheetah, and the bright sunlight glaring off of the white shack in the cage prevented me from seeing anything in the shadows inside. I could, however, see that on the back wall was a small window, and the footpath curved around the shack and cage. I followed it around and sure enough, there was the small barred window, at perfect eye level. As soon as I approached it, the smell of the cage was almost overpowering.
   Perhaps they only clean it once a month. It smelled like it was time.

   Nevertheless, I put my face up to the bars, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. Before I had a chance, WHOOMPH!  A huge tiger’s head rose to face me, nose to nose! It was at least two feet wide, with eyes the size of my palms, its nose half the size of my face. Its mouth was partly open, Fangs as thick as my thumb and as long as a pencil were mere inches from my face. I jumped back reflexively. You would too. But then, drawn by the beauty, I moved back towards the tiger. Its paws were on the windowsill, each the size of a dinner plate, claws sheathed, their tips barely visible.

   I had seen a piece of jewelry made from tiger teeth few months earlier on the neck of my Sudanese landlord in Tokyo. Now, looking at even larger teeth, still imbedded in their proper place, I was again entranced by their beauty. Tiger teeth have a matrix of lines weaving through them, giving them a pattern like dozens of rivers seen from the air. Prettier than the finest jewels, I can see why people have killed them just for their body parts.
It was incredibly beautiful. The glossy bright orange and black fur was thick and long, its eyes were full of natural pride of existence and were curious with a tinge of sadness. It seemed to be saying to me, “You are man, a small snack for me, the king of the beasts, and while I can’t eat you because of these bars, I can let you bask in the magnificence of my presence, and, if you can, let me out!”

   The tongue, wide as my hand and long as my forearm was panting in the summer heat, and as I have said before, its breath was very bad. Combined with the smell of feces and urine the combination of the three was soon too much to bear.

    I stayed as long as I could stand it, as the tiger seemed as appreciative of my admiration as I was grateful for this wonderful experience..  I can only hope that someday it escapes, gets out of Pusan safely and returns to it’s native home.

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