MY DREAM CAME TRUE!
Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Playing with baby tigers!

I was surrounded. My back was up against a wall and there were tigers and black panthers on all sides. Four of them. Their eyes shone with excitement. There was no escape. Fortunately, the predators were only about three months old, and rather than see me as prey, they saw me as a fun, new playmate.

My animal-loving ten year old brother and I were enjoying our time inside the cub enclosure at the Zoologico de Vallarta (Puerto Vallarta Zoo). About nine months earlier, I had seen a news story about the births of baby tigers, lions and a jaguar at the zoo. They showed footage of tourists interacting with the cubs. At my local zoo, I once spent hours watching a litter of young tigers pounce and play with each other. To play with tiger cubs would be a dream come true.

We arrived in Puerto Vallarta via cruise ship. Two public buses and a short walk later, we stood at the zoo’s front gate. I paid our admission, purchased a small paper bag full of food to feed to the animals at the zoo, and asked, using my limited Spanish, whether there were any baby tigers available to interact with that day. The answer was yes!

My brother and I wandered through the zoo, feeding the animals from our bag of feed. We had fed some primates, birds and a zebra, and had fed and played with the piglets, rabbits, goats, and guinea pigs in the children’s petting area when I asked an attendant where we could find the baby tigers. He pointed to a place just a few feet away.

Soon we were standing outside an enclosure, watching baby tigers and black panthers romp and wrestle. My brother and I couldn’t wait to go inside. I paid the attendant, he slid the door open for us, and we slipped inside. The attendant asked us to pose for a picture with one of the animals. I knelt down on the ground and picked up a young tiger. The cub was much heavier than I’d thought he would be. We ran our hands over his broad nose and solid, muscular back. The little tiger let us take the picture and then wiggled down to play with his friends.

The cubs’ energy seemed to be boundless. They endlessly stalked and pounced each other, the tourists, and even the attendant, who, unlike us, wore jeans, probably to protect his legs from little claws.

We quickly learned not to turn our backs on the cubs. If they sensed that someone was distracted, they would quickly stalk and pounce. The animals seemed especially attracted to our shoes and socks. Over and over, one young panther would grab hold of my shoelaces with his teeth and paws and work fervently to undo the knot. I finally double knotted my laces, but that didn’t stop the little one from playing tug-of-war with my socks and knotted laces. One of the baby tigers wrestled for a while with the sole of my brother’s shoe, digging his small canine teeth into it. My brother was pleased with his “shoe scar,” a souvenir of our visit.

After a while, the cubs started to tire. One by one, they joined one another, fast asleep. Soon all of the animals were asleep except one little tiger cub. He walked around the enclosure, making a vocalization that sounded somewhat like a housecat’s meow. “Why is he doing that?” I asked the attendant. The attendant told me that the baby was tired and wanted to go to sleep, but that, usually, at least one of them stays awake while there are people with them. I wanted to let them all rest, so we said our goodbyes. We kissed the little tiger on the head (probably not a great idea, but when were we ever going to get to do that again?) and the attendant slid open the door so that we could exit. I looked back to see the little cub already drifting off to sleep in a pile of his brothers.

We left the zoo that day with incredible memories and a memory card full of photos and video. We had survived our encounter with the tigers and panthers unscathed. My left sock wasn’t so lucky.

I did this in 2008 in Mismaloya (near Puerto Vallarta) , Mexico.

Jen (California, USA)


See more of Jen's animal adventures here.