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Duluth zoo says goodbye to Natasha, third-oldest Amur tiger in North America

The Lake Superior Zoo's tigers, Ussuri and Natasha, often rested together. Natasha, 19 years old, was euthanized this week because of chronic health problems. Records show she was the third-oldest Amur tiger in North America. (Courtesy of Lake Superior Zoo)

DULUTH - After zookeepers got a chance to say their goodbyes, the Lake Superior Zoo's female tiger, Natasha, was euthanized Tuesday. She was 19.

The zoo's director of animal management, Peter Pruett, said the entire staff at the zoo was saddened by the loss.

"Everyone who works here cares about and is invested in these animals," he said. "Our commitment is first and foremost to the well-being of our animals, and we recognized that Natasha's quality of life had recently diminished significantly."

The zoo's veterinarian, Dr. Louise Beyea, said Natasha was suffering from multiple chronic health problems and had taken a turn for the worse over the last 24 hours.

"Her kidney values were elevated, she had become incontinent and she developed an infection that would have been difficult to treat due to the severe side-effects of the drug needed," Beyea said in a news release.

Pruett said staff knew this day was coming because Natasha was a geriatric cat. National Species Survival Plan records indicate she was the third-

oldest Amur tiger in North America.

"We've been discussing her health for quite a while," he said.

Natasha's body will be necropsied at the University of Minnesota.

She was born June 30, 1992, at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and has been a resident of the Lake Superior Zoo for 18 years.

Living as long as she did was perhaps even more impressive for Natasha. In 1994 at age 2, she was poisoned and found in a coma one morning at the zoo. Tests showed Natasha had a potentially lethal dose of barbiturates in her blood and, although police concluded it was probably done by a staff member, according to Duluth News Tribune archives, they doubted they'd ever be able to pinpoint the culprit.

She was in a coma for three days, received a CT scan at St. Mary's Medical Center and eventually recovered. Officials worried at the time that Natasha may have suffered permanent damage, and Pruett said Tuesday they would have to wait for the necropsy results to see if she had liver damage.

Although Natasha had several male companions over the years, most recently a 6-year-old male Amur tiger named Ussuri, she never mated with any of them, Pruett said.

It will take time to determine whether Ussuri will react to Natasha's absence.

"We don't know if (Ussuri) will react," he said. "I do feel he knows that something's amiss and he probably knows she isn't there anymore."

Whether the zoo gets another tiger depends at least partially on advice from the breeding program known as the Species Survival Plan for Amur tigers. Currently, Amur tigers are on the critically endangered list, according to Pruett. Only 400 to 500 adults remain in the wild and there are nearly 150 in North American zoos, he said.

Because the zoo doesn't have facilities Pruett feels are adequate for breeding, he said he's unsure whether Ussuri may need to be moved to another facility for that purpose. If that's the case, he has requested a pair of same-gender compatible tigers be sent to Duluth.

Losing its accreditation in 2006 could be a factor in receiving another tiger or two, Pruett said, but it mainly comes down to what is best for the breed of animal.

"If they had a question about our program, they could just come up from the Minnesota Zoo to take a look," he said.

Lisa Baumann is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune