EL PASO, Texas -- The killing of a rare Malayan tiger by his mate caught handlers at the El Paso Zoo completely by surprise because there were no warning signs and the pair were seen playing together only hours earlier, the zoo director said Friday.
Seri, the 3-year-old female who was sent to El Paso from the San Diego Zoo about 15 months ago, seemed to have bonded with 6-year-old Wzui during the two-and-a-half months they were together, said Steve Marshal, the director of the El Paso Zoo. The tigers had tried mating, and hours before Thursday's attack were seen frolicking and "being affectionate," he said.
"We did not see any indication this was coming. It took us completely by surprise, the staff is shocked," Marshal said.
A zoo visitor witnessed the attack, but Marshal declined to publicly identify the witness. He said Seri killed Wzui by chomping down on the side of his neck and choking him.
"We arrived too late," Marshall added.
Tara Harris, the conservation director at the Minnesota Zoo, said attacks such as Thursday's almost never happen.
"Tigers do fight with one another, that's not rare. But it is very rare that one would kill another, specially a female killing a male. It is an anomaly," Harris said Friday by phone.
Wzui, who was born at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., and arrived in El Paso nine months ago from the Tulsa Zoo, in Oklahoma, will be cremated after a necropsy is performed. Seri will be examined for injuries before being returned to her display area, which will likely be in about two days, Marshal said.
Malayan tigers are rare – Wzui's death left just 57 in North America – and zoo officials said they have been told that the Tiger Special Species Survival Plan, which assigns the tigers to zoos for mating, has made finding a new suitable mate for Seri a priority. The program pairs the animals in a way that best keeps their species' limited gene pool stable.
"That is our mission ... her genetic material is extremely important," Marshall said. He said it doesn't appear Seri is pregnant.
When Wzui arrived at the zoo the keepers started a slow process of introduction for both animals. "It went great. It didn't take very long for them to like each other," said Marshall.
He said the zoo will revise its protocols for the introduction and cohabitation of tigers. Some zoos keep the tigers together all the time, while others only pair them during mating season. Seri and Wzui were living together in the same area. Marshal said there are pros and cons to each approach, and that the zoo hasn't decided which approach it will take once a new mate for Seri arrives.
There is a third tiger at the El Paso Zoo, a 15-year-old female named Melor or "Meli" as the keepers affectionately call her. When Wzui arrived at the zoo it was clear they liked each other even though they were not in the same area they could see and smell each other. "He started chuffing," Marshall said referring to a specific sound male tigers make when they like a female. However, Melor is past her reproductive age.
He was then introduced to Seri, a female just about to reach sexual maturity and liked her as well. "It was the females that did not like each other," Marshal added.
The Malayan tiger was classified as a subspecies with the help of DNA analysis in 2004. It is an endangered subspecies and it is believed that only about 500 of them remain in the wild in the Malayan Peninsula.