BILLINGS — Eager and full of energy, about 350 ZooMontana members of all ages showed up Friday afternoon to greet the two latest additions to the zoo’s family: sister Siberian tigers Jasmine and Sophie.
The big cats arrived by truck late last month from Dade City’s Wild Things, an eco-tourism zoo in Florida, but still had not been officially shown off to the public.
On Friday, members of the zoo got a special sneak peek of the roughly 2-year-old felines. The zoo’s director and several volunteers were present to answer questions.
“How do you tell them apart?” one child asked volunteer Julie Zimmerman. The question was a popular one.
Although the cats are roughly the same size, Jasmine is a lighter shade of orange and features more stripes. She also has a small scrape on her nose. Sophie, on the other hand, is more outgoing, said Zimmerman, who has been volunteering at the zoo since 2004.
As kids looked on, mesmerized by the giant creatures and their stripes, the two cats stared back, looking perhaps just as curious.
Another volunteer, Pat Donnelly, commented on it as she walked past.
“These tigers are having more fun than the kids,” she said.
The arrival of the tigers comes after Prince, the zoo’s beloved Siberian, died of lung cancer back in March. He was 18 years old.
The zoo’s director said the acquisition came quickly. After hearing about Prince’s passing, “They contacted us and said, ‘We’ve got these animals,’” Ewelt said.
Ewelt said they were initially looking at a tiger in Oregon, but that Sophie and Jasmine were a better fit.
It was only a couple months after the Florida zoo decided to donate the two sisters that they were loaded onto the back of a climate-controlled truck and were Billings bound.
“You never know what you’re passing on the highway.”
RBC Wealth Management in Billings footed the shipping costs, which hovered around $4,000, Ewelt said.
When they arrived in May, Jasmine and Sophie were housed in a separate area of the zoo, while preparations were made for them to be moved to their habitat.
On Monday, the cats finally made the transition.
Although the weather was much warmer in Florida, Ewelt said the cats haven’t had too much issue adjusting. As Siberians, he said, it’s in their nature.
He added that they’re looking forward to this winter, when they will get to see Jasmine and Sophie play in the snow for the first time.
Mychael and Jennifer Hoffman brought their two kids — Payton, 5, and Mason, 4 — to the zoo on Friday after receiving an email about the event.
They came earlier in the day, stayed for four hours, left and then came back to see the tigers, Jennifer said.
Jennifer said her kids loved Prince, “Literally, since the day Prince died, they’ve been crying.”
They were looking forward to meeting the new tigers ever since they heard about them a month ago. “They’ve both been very excited,” Mychael said.
“They are really cool,” said Payton, who will be a first-grader at Elder Grove in the fall.
While Payton was reluctant to call favorites so soon, for her younger brother, Mason, it wasn’t a problem; the answer was simple: Jasmine.
“She has more stripes,” he reasoned.
In the coming weeks, Ewelt said the zoo plans to fix a few cracked glass panes around their habitat. He said the funding for which will come from ExxonMobil, one of the exhibit’s sponsors.
He said in the future they hope to be in the financial position to provide a portion of their proceeds to conservation efforts, but for now, their conservation efforts come in the form of education.
He was touching on a question that volunteer Julie Zimmerman posed a little later:
“How are you going to get kids to care about tiger conservation if they’ve never seen one?”
The public in general got the chance to see the tigers Saturday.
The zoo is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $7 for adults, $4 for children 3-15 and free for kids 2 and under. There are also discounts for seniors and military members.