If you don’t know how to “chuff” properly, forget about making friends with “panthera tigris”.
Tigers – as well as snow leopards (“panthera uncia”) – greet each other and their humans via Prusten –the German word for “sneeze”. That’s what it sounds like when they exhale rapidly through their nostrils, producing non-threatening, snorting breaths.
Thank heavens, I discovered I can imitate my tigers’ chuffing quite easily by blowing through my closed lips.
But mustering the language of Mr. Stripes – “tigrese” – as big cat keepers call it, isn’t easy.
Although I’ve been owned by 50 tigers – a handful of Siberians, a couple of Royal Bengals and lots of Corbetts in the wildlife sanctuaries in three continents where I’ve volunteered – I can never boast I’m fluent in it.
Tigers have a wide range of vocalizations. They do the usual feline repertoire of snarl, roar, hiss or screech when angry, startled or irritated.
Or they can mew like half-ton domestic kitties to complain about anything – from getting their dinner plate-sized paws muddy, choking on too tight collars or getting scolded for jumping at low-flying birds or butterflies.
There’s the bark or woof – a short compact sound more chilling than the roar. It usually comes with adolescence. Tigers could use it to dynamite tree stumps or make noisy tourist groups and rich sanctuary donors they dislike run for their lives.
Amazingly, the tiger can make his voice sound like it’s coming from all points of the compass so his terrified prey flee directly into his path.
I never imagined how loud is the sound that issues from this cat’s 500-pound body. He can make his voice resonate through the forest making his calls heard for seven kilometres.
That is, until I stood next to one of my tigresses in season as she responded to a male vocalizing deep in the woods with a series of deep-chested moans: “Ngawooooo! Ngawoooooo!” Where are you? Where are you?
I felt my whole body vibrating along with everything around me in the thunder of her voice.
And just as paradoxically, the two most dangerous tigresses I cared for can whine, a sound so heart-breaking I couldn’t bear to leave them when they rub against the bars, crying like human children.
Obviously, they know the effect their crying produces on me. They always do it when I betray the slightest intention to leave. Dao Ruang (Shining Star), my favourite Corbetts tigress in Thailand, blackmails me with her crying and manages to detain me in her cage beyond midnight anytime she pleases.
Still, I don’t recommend that people cozy up and converse with the first wild tigers they meet.
But you can try to amuse some captive big cats and have good fun yourselves – if you don’t mind strange looks and snide comments from the humans – both the visitors and the tiger handlers.
You can try chuffing at the cubs and juveniles in the zoos, for practice. Watch them look up in surprise, bewilderment, followed by sheer delight as they discover you can talk their language – or manage a passable version it.
And then they run to you, lower their heads and chuff back lustily.
The adults might not appreciate your efforts as much as the youngsters. The big tigers would have bonded to specific humans by this time. But still, you never know.
I can never forget the first day I came to Tiger Temple in Thailand, when I chuffed at the most senior tigers in two rows of cages and they all chuffed back at me down the line.
At the Beijing Zoo, I called the white tigress matriarch. She blinked at me softly and yawned. I yawned back. She waited awhile and yawned again. We enjoyed a long yawning game that morning.
The tigers at Kyoto Zoo not only chuffed back at me. They invited me to play as well. Same thing with the tigers of Toronto and Berlin. Even captive tigers in Manila and in Cavite perked up when I greeted them and chuffed back.
Of course, I have yet to see if my luck holds among the famous man-eaters of the Bangladeshi Sunderbans.