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Tooth and claw conservation

Meet the inhabitants of Tulsa Zoo’s Lost Kingdom

A snow leopard at Tulsa Zoo

Ruth Holland

Arroooh! Jin roared. The critically endangered Malayan tiger’s impatience echoed throughout the indoor dayroom of the Tulsa Zoo’s new $21 million exhibit complex, Lost Kingdom.

Jin howl-roared again over Kalle Burgess, the zoo’s community relations manager, as she talked about the tiger’s new home. 

“I’m not a tiger expert,” Burgess said while Jin stalked back and forth like a pent-up heavyweight ready for the ring. “But based on her body language, I’m thinking she’s impatient for breakfast.”

The zoo’s biggest and most expensive project to date replaced the 1960s-era tiger and snow leopard grottos with updated, naturalistic homes and demonstration areas. 

Early this hot June morning, a horticulturist was weeding the 6,000-square-foot east yard of the Helmerich Tiger Exhibit, where Jin likes to eat her breakfast and bask in morning sun amid a rolling landscape and crumbling temple ruins. 

“So she will have to wait until he’s done,” Burgess said.

She and the two other tigers in the zoo’s collection—Jin’s daughter Ava and a male named Tahan—moved from their half-century-old grottos and into an enriched habitat almost five times larger than their former home.

“We designed the Lost Kingdom complex to provide immersive, year-round viewing opportunities where zoo guests can feel like they have walked into a forgotten land,” said Lindsay Hutchison, Tulsa Zoo’s vice president of philanthropy and community engagement. “Exploring among the ruins teeming with wildlife, zoo visitors will feel a mixture of curiosity and engagement; curiosity about the animals they are viewing, and a desire to engage in conservation.”

Jin didn’t care about the specifics of her new habitat this morning—not even the Hille Foundation Tiger Bridge, where she can stalk over the heads of visitors in an open-air walkway. She wanted her yard and her breakfast. Arroooh!

Jin padded past the demonstration area where zookeepers chat with small groups. Training areas are an integral part of the exhibit. Both the tiger and the snow leopard demonstration areas give guests a chance to watch zookeepers show positive reinforcement techniques up close.

The Lost Kingdom is a Noah’s ark of endangered Asian species. There are male-female pairs of snow leopards, Komodo dragons, binturongs (nicknamed “bear-cats” or “bear-weasels,” though not related to either), siamangs, and Chinese alligators.

“Komodos are on the threatened list. Siamangs numbers are down by 50 percent. Malayan tigers have dropped down to 250–300 in the wild,” Burgess said. “So we are trying to breed them here.”

The Tulsa Zoo hopes Jin will become a mother again, and that Tahan will become a father for the first time. Protecting endangered species and maintaining a healthy population is an integral part of Tulsa Zoo’s mission.

Komodo dragons are a quiet species, unlike tigers, who tend to talk a lot. In a sky-lit indoor area of his own, a male Komodo dragon splayed out on a heated rock just a few hundred feet from Jin; heated elements were placed near windows for up-close viewing when he warms his belly. 

Outside, the female Komodo sat in the sun near a shallow pool. Across from her, a father-daughter pair of siamangs—small, black-furred primates—swung from ropes. The daughter siamang had never seen humans this close before moving into her new habitat, according to Burgess. As if on cue, the small primate walked up to a window and put her hand on the glass to greet a pack of toddlers. The species regarded one another, then moved on to other windows.

Most of the animals in Lost Kingdom were previous Tulsa Zoo residents, while newcomers include the red panda, binturong, and a few bird species.

Though Jin has to wait for breakfast, human guests can head over to the outdoor Komodo Canteen for fair food and full-point Marshall beers on tap at their leisure. A new wood-fired pizza restaurant, Rajan’s, features a wraparound indoor patio with views of the tiger yard, where Jin likes to nap in the sun—after breakfast, of course.

Lost Kingdom is the second project of the zoo’s 20-year master plan, revealed in 2012, to rebuild and provide larger, updated habitats for each of the animals. 

“The completion of Lost Kingdom will allow us to continue work on our master plan, focusing on the African section of the zoo next,” Hutchison said.

The next project will be an improved giraffe exhibit. 

“We got a $1 million donation from Osage Casinos to expand the barn and create indoor viewing,” Burgess said.

For more from Jennie, read her article on Amy Rockett-Todd’s wet plate collodion photography.