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10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Tiger Keeper

Like, do you ever get scared?

by Asad Asnawi
Jun 5 2018, 7:14pm

All photos by Andriana

In Indonesia, it's fairly common for really dangerous jobs to be considered totally normal. Just think about your neighborhood snake charmer. But not all animal handlers are (alleged) mystics with supernatural abilities to communicate with deadly serpents. Some of them are trained professionals.

VICE's Asad Asnawi met with Susilo, a tiger handler at Taman Safari Indonesia. Susilo takes care of the park's tigers, spending his days with big cats that are large enough to kill a man—and in the wild plenty of them do. Spending time this close to a Sumatran tiger would terrify most people, but not Susilo. What did it take for him to get so comfortable around tigers? We visited Taman Safari Indonesia to find out.

VICE: How long have you been doing this job?
Susilo: I've been here five years. Back then, I had just graduated from school, I went to a state vocational school where I had studied farming. I wanted to apply to university, but I couldn't afford it. I didn't want to be doing nothing so I figured that I should look for jobs online. It turned out that right then there was an opening here at TSI. I applied and got the job.

When I started out a tiger had just given birth to this one. Her name's Yoan, and two others too. My manager assigned me to be her keeper right away.

A tiger is a wild animal. How do you care for one? Do you ever feel scared or nervous around Yoan?
I love animals. I have several cats at home, but, yeah, tigers are different. Of course I get nervous from time-to-time, especially when I was just starting out. But I learned a lot from my experiences and read a lot about how to deal with wild animals like tigers.

Beginners don't really get assigned to the tigers. We don't want them to be eaten! It's better to start out with the cubs. When a tiger gives birth, a keeper takes care of the cubs. That's how we get close to them and bond with them. I help them fall asleep, I even sleep next to them in their cage. We have an emotional bond, and because I'm affectionate with them, they're nice to me.

What made you want to keep this job?
I love it. I could ask you the same thing, right? Why did you drive all the way here to talk to me? It must be because you love what you do. I don’t mind the silence, or the lack of company as long as I can be with these animals. I really love animals.

Have you ever been tempted to bring one of these tigers home with you?
Any animal lover would want to have a house full of animals. I've imagined how great it would be to have a tiger at home, but I know that's impossible. It's not easy to take care of a tiger. We need to feed them meat [and meat's expensive]. They are endangered species as well. I would get arrested if I owned one of them. Besides, the population of tigers in decline. It's better to keep them here where we have a veterinarian to take care of the tigers.

So I know you love your job, but there has to be some part of it you don't like, right? No job is perfect.
It can be boring sometimes, since I always work in the cage and only with animals. But there is nothing I hate more than annoying visitors, you know the ones, the kinds who throw food at the animals.


Watch: The Illegal Big Cats of Instagram


How close do feel to these tigers?
I feel really close to them. Yoan, for example, I think she understands me. Maybe it's because I've taken care of her since she was a baby, so Yoan knows when I'm not in a good mood. She just sits there and stays quiet.

What do you do when they fall ill?
None of them ever got sick under my care, but our clinic has complete facilities and an excellent vet. We take them to the clinic regularly and we check everything: their health conditions, their weight, et cetera. We bathe them, feed them twice, and give them milk. If they start to look sick, we immediately bring them to the vet.

This zoo has two types of tigers: Bengal and Sumatran. We have six of them in total.

Have the tigers ever hurt you? Like clawed you or bit you?
Never. I always treat them well, so they never behave bad around me. If they bite me it's usually gently and because they want to play. Sometimes they even want us to hold them. I can always tell when they want something.

Have you ever considered changing careers? Or are you in this for the long-term?
I really have no other work experience, so I never thought to change my job. I also love doing this. I don't even feel like it's actually working. I'm just playing with cats all day.

You said tiger populations were in decline. A lot of this is because of poachers. If you could talk directly to them, what would you say?
It’s such a shame they do hunt them. Tigers are a threatened species, but there are still irresponsible people who hunt tigers for commercial purposes. And rich people are willing to spend hundreds of millions of rupiah to buy a tiger. They are like proud to own one or something.

Indonesian tigers are increasingly endangered. We used to have three types of tigers—Balinese, Javan, and Sumatra. Today, two of those are extinct. Their habitats decreased because of residential development. I just want to protect the remaining tigers out there. So please stop hunting them.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.