Sick tiger in tow

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 12:02 a.m.

Think traveling with the kids is hard? Try driving a queasy Siberian tiger halfway across Florida.

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After balking at an earlier attempt to load Zulu into his transport cage, Kurt Stoner of Peace River Refuge & Ranch secures a chain as they attempt to load the tiger for his ride home.

Photo by Rob C. Witzel / The Gainesville Sun

That's what Kurt and Lisa Stoner did Friday when Zulu, one of 18 big cats in their nonprofit animal shelter, came down with an embarrassing - and life-threatening - illness that only the University of Florida could handle.

"We rushed him up here as soon as we could," said Lisa Stoner, 38, vice president of Peace River Refuge and Ranch, a 90-acre animal shelter in rural Hardee County near Zolfo Springs. "We didn't miss a beat. And if we had, he might not have made it."

The Stoners first noticed something amiss with Zulu early last week, when the tiger seemed to lose his appetite. A few days later, he came down with a much more unpleasant gastrointestinal problem - one that left little doubt Zulu had caught some sort of stomach bug. By Friday morning, he was severely dehydrated.

It wasn't Zulu's first bad stomach problem. When he was a cub, his hip was broken and never healed properly, pinching his lower intestine almost shut. When that led to later complications, the Stoners, who then had custody over Zulu, brought him to the Small Animal Hospital at UF's School of Veterinary Medicine, where he had his lower intestine removed - the first time such an operation has been done on a tiger.

Since then, Zulu has had more than his share of stomach ailments, and has been on a special low-calcium diet. But his bout with illness last week was more severe than most, and when veterinarians around Zolfo Springs said they couldn't help, the Stoners herded Zulu into a wire cage on a two-wheeled trailer and towed him to Gainesville.

"He was so sick he almost died under anaesthesia," said Maud Lafortune, the veterinarian who treated Zulu. "He was so weak it was risky to give him anaesthesia - but there are some things you can't do while he's awake."

UF veterinarians fitted Zulu with an IV that allowed them to give him fluids and help him recover from his dehydration. By Tuesday morning, he was almost back to normal, and on his way back home - though veterinarians still aren't sure whether his problem was caused by a virus, a bacteria or something else.

"Vets have told us more than once to have Zulu put down," Stoner said. "But I can't see euthanizing an animal just because he's hard to care for, or because of the cost of his care."

And the Stoners are particularly attached to Zulu, who was the first animal in the Peace River refuge, as well as its unofficial mascot.

The Stoners first took Zulu in a few years ago, shortly after his hip was broken. They were living in Hollywood at the time: Lisa was working as a computer consultant and Kurt, 51, painted and repaired houseboats for a living. They had friends at a nearby Seminole reservation, where the tiger lived as part of a roadside attraction. When Zulu was kicked in the hip by a horse at the attraction, Zulu's owners couldn't pay the $600 vet bill, and they offered the tiger to the Stoners.

"It made sense," Stoner said. "We were right there in Hollywood, and we just happened to have a license to raise tiger cubs on our property."

Rehabilitating exotic animals - wild foxes, tiger cubs, and others - had been something of a hobby for the Stoners. But after taking on Zulu, the Stoners became full-time animal keepers.

In 1999 they moved to rural Hardee County, where land prices were relatively cheap, and set up the Peace River Refuge, which is now home to 300 exotic animals, including big cats, dozens of primates, a bear, a bison and a colony of Egyptian fruit bats. They also have a Web site, www.

At first, the money poured in - but since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Stoners say, donations to animal welfare organizations have almost dried up. Still working part-time in consulting, Stoner said she'll pay Zulu's $2,500 vet bill for last weekend out of her own pocket.

Eleven lemurs are now living in the covered trailer the Stoners normally use to cart Zulu around, so they had to bring him to Gainesville in an open wire cage - which led to a few difficulties on the way.

"You'd think people would be afraid to walk up to a tiger's cage, but that's not how it works," Stoner said. "People are too brave, if anything. When you stop at a gas station, they come right up and try to take a picture. I had to run interference."

The Stoners say Zulu liked the open-air ride - "he's like a dog that way," Stoner said - though the tiger panics when the Stoners pull into gas stations with an overhang covering the pumps.

"There are a lot of little things he's afraid of," Kurt Stoner said. "He hates overhangs and tarps, and he's scared to death of umbrellas. I guess it all goes back to things that happened to him before we got him, but I'm not sure."

The tiger's days as a roadside attraction also taught him how to mug for the cameras.

"He knows the flash is coming," Kurt Stoner said. "If you point a camera at him, he squints."

Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@

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