She dons her swim shorts and shirt, ties back her hair and grabs the tigers’ favorite brightly colored inflatable balloon toys. Entering the pool area through a gate, she eyes her swimming companions, who pad around the fenced enclosure on their thick paws. Zion and Ezekiel, 4-year-old siblings, see the balloons and are ready to play. So is Ruff. She shakes the pipe attached to the balloons. They jiggle. Zion watches intently. His fur twitches. Ruff knows the best part of the day is about to begin. It’s also one of the most dangerous.
It’s called Tiger Splash, a kind of play date for tigers where they learn to socialize with their keepers and each other. It happens every afternoon at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park where Ruff, who graduated in 2003 with a degree in sociology, has been working for six years. It’s a dream job for Ruff, a cat lover from Seattle who always wanted to work with cats. Maybe even big cats.
So after graduating, she searched for a veterinary tech position and came across Cat Tales Zoological Park near Spokane, Wash., that also offers a professional zoo school. The best part was they had large cats. The one-year program was hard work—80-hour weeks and strenuous labor—but Ruff learned about keeping wild animals and managing wildlife parks. Before she finished, she had a job offer from Out of Africa in central Arizona, where she started in July 2005 as an animal keeper for large cats.
Ruff has since been promoted to assistant manager of cats and predators. Her menagerie includes 15 tigers, 16 lions and several black leopards, bobcats and a spotted jaguar. The park has 104 acres for its animals, typical African, Asian and American native species that, in addition to the cats, include bears, giraffes, zebras, hyenas, wildebeests, wolves and Boom Boom the rhinoceros. All have been rescued and are free to roam in the park’s open wildlife preserve or African bush safari.
Ruff’s job focuses on animal care. She assists veterinarians and helped raise Zion and Ezekiel, twin cubs who were saved from an overcrowded facility. “I love it,” she says. “It’s exactly what I want to do. It would be hard to leave because these animals are like my family.”
It’s 1:15 p.m. Spectators watch from the bleachers as Ruff shakes the balloons again and Zion charges. But Ruff is not afraid. She helped raise
Zion. She trusts him. Ruff runs toward the pool and jumps in, tossing the balloons away. Zion leaps in after her, accidentally landing on Ruff’s head, using her as a stepping stone to get to the balloons behind her. The tiger’s weight forces Ruff under, the big paws pressing her to the bottom. What seems like forever is actually only a few seconds before Zion swims off.
Ruff pulls herself out of the pool as Zion pounces on his prey. He puts a big paw on a balloon and bites. It pops. The crowd cheers, and he looks around for more.
“Their instinct is to play with us,” Ruff says. “It can be dangerous, but we’ve been with these animals since they were babies. We know they love us and don’t want to hurt us.”