By Bobbie Katz, CRWENEWSWIRE Correspondent
As an acclaimed illusionist with one of the most successful shows that the Sahara hotel and casino in Las Vegas has ever seen, Rick Thomas appears – and re-appears seven nights a week --.at the legendary hotel in “The Magic and Tigers of Rick Thomas.”
But, in reality, it is a disappearing act that is foremost in Thomas' mind on a daily basis – that is, the vanishing of tigers in the wild. As one who has devoted the past more than 20 years of his life to raising and working with these magnificent creatures, he knows that it will take more than magic to transform their plight into one that will enable this endangered species to survive.
“I've raised 13 tigers from birth over the last two decades,” Thomas tells me upon a visit to his home. “There are only about 1,000 left in the wild – 600 Indian, 400 Siberian and about 10 Sumatran. Back in 1900, there were 160,000 Bengal tigers in the wild alone. Man is the tiger's deadliest enemy. These animals are worth more dead than alive. In other parts of the world, tiger parts are worth a lot of money – in many countries, they are believed to be magical. India has been trying to protect the animals but it is not working.”
“There are currently 5,000 tigers in captivity in the United States,” he continues. “Of them, only 6 percent are in zoos and 94 percent are being taken care of by people just like me, who really love and care about them. I currently have six tigers and four of them are in my show. While I have both orange and white tigers, they are all Bengal. One misconception is that white tigers are on the endangered list – while tigers as a whole are on the list, white ones are not. That's because they are man-made and have never been in the wild.”
As he begins to prepare the daily meal for his six charges that reside in the compound on his property, Thomas explains that there are only three breeds of tigers – Bengal (Indian), Siberian, and Sumatran – all of which are naturally orange with white on the bottom and underside and on their faces . He recounts the story of how the white tiger came into existence.
“Back in the 1960s, a tiger with a lot of white on it was found in the wild and was bred by the Prince of India,” he reveals. “He bred it for seven years and got all orange tigers until someone finally figured it out. It took seven years but the tiger was finally inbred with its daughter and the first white tiger was produced.”
Thomas, who says that raising and working with these animals takes “serious dedication,” informs me that, obtaining a tiger – which only happens when there is a need for one to be obtained,– requires permission from the USDA and adherence to the agency's guidelines. Thomas has an exhibitor's permit from the government and is required by law to exhibit the tigers to educate the public about conservation.
After our talk, it's time for me to meet Thomas' feline family..The animals reside happily in Phase 1 of the compound in the back of Thomas' home – a 10,000-square-foot area with spacious individual chain-link fenced enclosures for each cat with a large central training area and a pool, in which Thomas swims with the tigers (one at a time, unless they are cubs). There is also an aviary by the pool. Thomas is getting ready to build Phase 2 of the compound to give the tigers even more room to romp. He has two handlers that work with him at home and at the show.
Thomas' beautiful animals are Samson, 15 (tigers live 15-20 years), Kaos, 7, Mercury, 6, brothers Max and Rocky, 9, and Star, 8, the only female in the group. Each has its own distinct personality. All gaze at me with curiosity and make the chuffing sound that tigers exhibit as a greeting; Mercury and star come right up to the fence while Samson, being gently awakened from his nap by Thomas, rolls over on his back like a kitten. One by one, I am introduced to these incredible animals, experiencing a thrill from being in such close proximity to them.
“Rocky is like Scar from 'The Lion King,'” Thomas smiles. “Scar was evil and killed his own brother. Max is much more even-tempered. Kaos' name says it all – he's aggressive for food and loves to eat. Mercury is the first tiger I've ever had that lets me do anything with him. Samson is fabulous and Star's a female. She's much more aggressive than the males because the females raise the cubs. Tigers will eat their own cubs, by the way – the female won't but the father will so he has to be kept away from them.”
Each of Thomas' tigers weighs between 350 and 500 pounds (Mercury is the largest) and each consumes 10-15 pounds of raw beef, chicken, and turkey a day, which Thomas keeps in two huge freezers. They are fed once a day. The four tigers that are in his show are Kaos, Mercury, Max, and Rocky and the illusionist/conservationist devotes five consecutive hours of constant attention to them everyday – two hours cleaning them up and then loading them into the trailer to transport them to the show, the hour-and-a-half of the show, and then an hour with them afterward, bringing them home again.
“Felines are really hard to understand,” Thomas, the father of five human kids, notes. “Raising them is like raising children. They're mischievous and they constantly need to be told what to do. They're stubborn learners and they don;t need humans to survive. The most serious time with them, especially when it comes to training them, is when they are six months to a year old. You have to be hands-on with them constantly. After that, they will separate from people, although they will bond with one or two. Tigers can be trained but never tamed. Even now, they still may nip occasionally.”
“You need a heightened sense of awareness to work with tigers,” he admits. “But I'd rather do this than jump out of an airplane. I have less fear because I work with them everyday although I'm not trying to downplay the danger – we all choose our lots in life. I don't like pushing any of the tigers when it comes to my show – if one is a challenge, I'll let it go and switch him with another tiger for that illusion. I don't want them to do anything that's uncomfortable for them. But they're used to being in the show and they know their spots – they hear their music and they know what;'s going on.”
As much as he is doing his share to preserve this incredible species, Thomas worries that there may soon be none left in the wild because of poaching and illegal trade. The World Wildlife Federation, has warned that tigers could become extinct in the wild in less than a generation and, with this being the Year of the Tiger, has launched a campaign to save them. A World Bank official noted that, unless we really crack down on illegal trade and poachers, tigers in the wild have very little chance.
According to the WWF, which echoes Thomas' comment on tiger parts making these animals worse more dead than alive, the demand for tiger bones and skin, meat, and even claws and teeth is driving a major crime campaign to wipe out tigers in the wild. To that avail, the WWF is working with the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine to fight the use of traditional remedies such as tiger bones, which traditional Chinese medicine believes saves lives..
The WWF hopes to find ways to double the current population of wild tigers, (which, it claims is around 3,200) by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022 but, to do that, the group needs the help of governments and at least $13 million a year just for its highest priority sites. On the positive side, if they can be protected, tigers can breed faster than prey and recover.
The WWF has designated 10 tiger trouble spots around the world, highlighting areas where development or legal loopholes have endangered tigers or destroyed their habitat.
Those areas are in Bangladesh, China, Europe, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia, the United States, Vietnam, and the Greater Mekong region, which stretches across Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
In the meantime, caring people like Rick Thomas will continue to try to preserve the species, even if in captivity. And, no doubt, the felines will continue to give him, and the others like him, a hearty roar of approval.
In the eye of the tiger, he's grrrrrrrrrrrreat!
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