Assiniboine Park Zoo says goodbye to beloved Amur tiger, headed for potential mate in Calgary

A popular tiger at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo will soon make his way back to the zoo where he was born, in the hopes that he’ll mate with a female Amur tiger at Calgary’s zoo.

Fran Donnelly, an animal care professional at the Winnipeg zoo, has looked after Samkha, a nine-year-old Amur tiger, since he arrived in Manitoba, at the age of about 18 months.

People in the city have already been flocking to Samkha’s enclosure to see the popular cat one last time, she said.

“He is such a lovable personality for a tiger. He’s a big goof, but also has quite a sensitive side to him as well,” Donnelly told CBC’s Weekend Morning Show host Stephanie Cram.

“He has quite the following of regular members. People love to take pictures of him. He’s very regal and really knows how to pose for the camera, so he has a lot of good friends that have come in to say goodbye.”

It will be a particularly tough goodbye for Donnelly, who’s been working with the Amur tiger for years. She’ll be on the plane with him when he departs in a big crate bound for Alberta.

“We spend as much time bonding with these animals here as we do with our own dogs and cats at home, so they definitely hold special places in our hearts,” she said.

“It’s always a really big challenge to see such awesome animals go on. But it’s also a really special opportunity.”

Animal care professional Fran Donnelly says Samkha the tiger, pictured here, ‘really knows how to pose for the camera.’ (Assiniboine Park Zoo/Facebook)

That opportunity is a match that was recommended by an Association of Zoos and Aquariums species survival plan for the endangered cats. It’s estimated there are only about 540 Amur tigers (previously called Siberian tigers) left in the wild.

The hope is that Samkha will breed with 10-year-old Sarma, who was born at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in 2011, Donnelly said.

The Calgary Zoo had no luck either artificially inseminating Sarma this spring or pairing her up with another tiger a few years ago.

That tiger, an eight-year-old Amur named Youri, will be coming back to Winnipeg’s in Samkha’s place.

“From what I’ve heard from his zookeepers out in Calgary, he does have quite a goofy personality, but we imagine it’ll take a little bit for him to get settled in, so we probably won’t see that full personality for a couple of months,” Donnelly said.

“We’re just going to give him some quiet time on his own just to explore his new habitat, and then we’ll start building our bond and relationship with him like we do with all of our animals that come in.”

Youri also has a sister already living at the Winnipeg zoo — named Volga — which is a rarity in the zoo business, Donnelly said.

“It doesn’t often happen that siblings get to see each other again in human care,” she said.

Animal care professional Fran Donnelly says it will be particularly tough for her to say goodbye to Samkha, who she’s been working with for years. (Assiniboine Park Zoo/Facebook)

They won’t be in the same enclosure, since tigers are naturally solitary animals, but a familiar face (and scent) could be comforting for Youri, said Donnelly.

“They’ll be able to see each other and smell each other and talk to each other. They’ll be good neighbours.”

Monday will be the final day to see Samkha the Amur tiger at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, Donnelly said.

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