Growing up with a total of seven dogs, two cats, one rabbit, a tarantula and a host of other animals including turtles, hamsters and fish, I definitely developed a love for animals at an early age. Yet no matter how hard I tried to dress my dogs in capes and call them warriors, none of my domestic pets held any sort of fear in my mind. Chloe, my black labrador retriever just licked my face before getting her feet tangled in the bed sheet tied around her neck.
Superdog, she was not. But I loved her anyways.
After reading The Jungle Book and discovering the quiet sense of dread, accompanied by a slight tingle up my spine that Sher Khan could induce, I vowed to one day meet this beast, and face an animal that would not love me unconditionally. Over the years I forgot about my fascination with tigers and focused on more tangible life markers: going on my first date, graduating from high school, picking a college and, eventually, a career path.
It wasn't until years later, when I had quit my job and rerouted my life, that I found myself in a small bookstore in Lima, Peru. Wedged in between Steve Jobs' biography and Sex & the City was a book that brought back the spark of my youth in a rush of emotions. Black faced with the body of the beast padding slowly across the top, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht was suddenly in my hands and out the door. It traveled with me as I hiked the dizzying mountains of Huaraz and sun bathed in the hammocks of Mancora. It spoke of my childhood desires with such intimate detail that seemed too unreal to be true.
It was then that I knew I had to meet my tiger.
A few months later, in April 2012, I got the chance to visit India with Compass, a local touring service. As we traveled from Delhi to Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur, each city was enough to satisfy my insatiable travel bug -- until I learned of my next destination. We were headed to Ranthambhore and into the heart of tiger country.
As my open air gypsy jeep pulled up to the Ranthambhore National Park, I could feel my heart pounding. Our guide explained that tiger sightings were not guaranteed, but I simply tuned him out. Somewhere inside this park was a tiger, and I just knew that I would meet him. As our jeep rumbled along the dirt road, my five companions and I snapped hundreds of photos of the wild peacocks sitting impossibly high up in the trees, the deer wandering through the forests and the black-faced monkeys hamming it up just inches away from us. Suddenly a high pitched bird cry rang out and the animals all began to run.
"That was a warning call," our guide explained. "A tiger is near."
The driver pulled the jeep to the side of the road and killed the motor. We sat quietly, our ears straining for the sounds of soft paws on the dry, packed earth. As we waited, our guide began to tell us the inspiring story of the park's last remaining tigers.
One of the female tigers had recently given birth to twins. Generally male tigers lead a life of solitude, and join the females very briefly, just long enough for them to concieve. There are many instances when two male tigers clash over control of a territory, when in reality the father is simply not recognizing his own son. Baby tigers live with their mother for a few years during which they learn to hunt and survive on their own. However, in this case, the mother got sick, and by the time the park rangers found her it was too late. The twin babies cried for her and grew weak, still being too young to hunt on their own. Incredibly, the father of the twins recognized his children and returned to care for and raise them.
As the park ranger finished his story, with a look of amazement on his seasoned face, I felt that old shiver, the one I had first experienced with the arrival of Sher Khan. Indeed, tigers were mysterious and powerful creatures, but the ranger's story proved that they also had compassion. Perhaps they were not quite as fearful as I had always imagined.
We waited for a few more moments, but as the sounds of the park resumed their usual chatter, we knew the moment had passed. The tiger had moved on, and it was time for us to do the same.
I never did get to meet my tiger, but I left India with a sense of peace. Perhaps the father was just trying to keep his twins safe and hidden from view a while longer. He may have been fighting against his own nature, but there, in the wildlife preserve of Ranthambhore, India, I saw a flicker of unconditional love from the most unlikely of sources.