Back in August of 1992, a tiger somewhere in Indiana had unexpected cubs. She had been living with a lion, and one or both of them were supposed to have been neutered. Apparently not, as the cubs born to this tigress were ligers, a cross between a male lion and a female tiger. There were five cubs total, with one of them being smaller than the others. While there was some interest in the four bigger ligers, there was not much interest in the runt. The owner of this facility had another friend at a new zoo that had just been started in Reno, Nevada. He offered them this unique cub, and told them to take a whirl at trying to raise it.
This special cub did thrive in his new environment, and quickly drew lots of attention both inside and outside the zoo. They named this little (but rapidly growing) liger 'Hobbs' after the tiger in the comic strip, 'Calvin and Hobbes'. Hobbs was a pleasure to work with, and very well-behaved for a big cat. And Hobbs helped put Sierra Safari Zoo 'on the map'.
Hobbs shared the only big cat enclosure in the zoo with a lion named Claude. The zoo was rapidly growing at this time, and a large grant allowed the acquisition of several other big cats (and a new enclosure system, which is the present-day big cat area). One of these cats was a tiger named Tasha. Although Tasha actually grew up with Kenya the lion, they paired her with Hobbs. The two lived together for nearly nine years, and were best friends.
Hobbs was enormous. In the years I was working with him, he weighed about 900 pounds. This is about double any other cat we had in the zoo, including our magnificent male lion, Kenya. Big cats concentrate a lot of weight in small areas. So Hobbs had trouble walking on ice, but that didn't stop him. I remember Hobbs 'plowing' through the ice in our pond on more than one occasion. At least Hobbs liked water, and even though it was a bit cold, never hesitated to 'go swimming' if there was an important need (like retrieving an interesting object from the middle of the pond).
And speaking of water, in summer, Hobbs would try to 'hide' in the water so he could surprise you and get you all wet. The look on his face when he was in the water was, 'What cat? No, there's no 1,000 pound cat hiding in this water!' Both keepers and visitors were recipients of these 'baths'.
Because Hobbs was so large, they had a contest to have people guess how much he actually weighed. So, for his birthday that year, they were going to take him to a truck scale and have him weighed. The catkeepers tried to get Hobbs to get into their animal transport trailer. But ligers are cats after all, and he refused to cooperate. End of promotion!
Hobbs was as much as he could be, gentle with the other cats, of which he had frequent contact. Lori Acordigotia, the zoo's manager, has a wonderful story about this, when she introduced a lion cub named Jambo to the adult big cats. I will let her tell it in her own words:
"...Even the other cats had great respect for him and not from fear but from friendship. He showed kindness to them all often rubbing up against the fence next to them and greeting them happily. A great example of this was the first time I took our lion cub Jambo to meet Hobbs; Hobbs was so excited coming quickly to the fence and chuffing eagerly. Jambo was not prepared for this gentle giant and was startled and ran off. The next time I took Jambo to see Hobbs, Hobbs came over slowly and close to the ground chuffing in a gentle quiet way I had never heard before. This time Jambo was not intimidated and they became instant friends rubbing and licking each other. I found out then just how special he really was. ..."
Indeed, Jambo has lived next door to Hobbs for most of his life, and they have always been great friends.
Speaking of sounds, Hobbs could make both lion and tiger sounds. He would often roar with the lions. His low, guttural roar was easy to pick out from the higher-pitched lion roars. Hobbs also would occasionally roar by himself, sometimes getting Kenya to join in. Hobbs chuffed a lot (A chuff is a friendly tiger greeting), but would also sometimes make lion 'humming' noises. I remember one time, he chuffed, and immediately hummed. He was truly a bilingual cat!
Hobbs liked everyone, and was well-behaved. Zoo manager Jimmy Martin described Hobbs as a 'very wise cat'. But one day, Hobbs noticed a new keeper that had joined the Sunday zoo crew. He liked this new keeper, who was named Kelly. Soon, Kelly found he had a huge new playmate who wanted him to be with him all the time. Hobbs had 'adopted' him!
Hobbs was not once, but twice photographed for publication in various National Geographic publications. The one published in May of 2006 in National Geographic Kids magazine shows a full side profile of this huge and magnificent cat. The movie 'Napoleon Dynamite' made ligers famous overnight. For weeks after the movie came out on video, the zoo was getting lots of calls asking if ligers really existed. Of course, we were able to confirm that firsthand! Hobbs narrowly missed being on 'Good Morning America' at that time, the honor going to Doctor Bhagavan Antle's liger 'Hercules'.
In early 2002, another new cat-oriented keeper started working at Sierra Safari Zoo. That was me. Kenya the great black-maned lion was the first to 'adopt' me. I think he saw 'lion man' written all over me! But Hobbs for once ignored Kelly and started paying attention to me. Kelly didn't mind, as this gave him a chance to play with Tasha tiger. As the spring of that year turned into summer, Hobbs' unusual interest in me became readily apparent. He would follow me around wherever I went. He would invent games with me. He went out of his way to get me wet whenever he could via the aforementioned 'liger in the water' game. Despite his immense size, he was a very quiet stalker, and would quite often 'surprise' me.
All male cats can spray their scent-marked urine backwards to mark various objects. Hobbs liked to spray-mark people. He marked both zookeepers, and much to their annoyance, visitors! He made a big game out of it. Most visitors did not care much for this behavior. But one day, a boy and his father came into the gift shop while I was working there. The boy was grinning from ear to ear. Hobbs had sprayed him, and he was thrilled to be 'property of a liger'! Eventually, we had to post a sign in his area, warning visitors about his penchant for spraying.
There was another humorous spraying incident involving Hobbs. One day, I had just let Kenya into the run. He slowly made his way over to the common fence between Hobbs and the run. Hobbs was waiting for him. Both cats then turned around, lifted their tails, and proceeded to repeatedly spray each other-- a proverbial 'pissing match'!
Initially, Hobbs made every attempt to spray me. But he eventually stopped doing this because I think he knew that I knew he owned me. Instead, I was able to start training him to spray on command!
When I would come down into the big cat area of the zoo in the morning, Hobbs would wait for me. As soon as I was close enough, he would often play a 'liger game' with me. But just as often, and always after a game, Hobbs came up to the fence to be touched. Touch is very important in the cat world. He woul put his mane and side into the fence so I could scratch him. Unlike Kenya the lion who would sit still for a deep, intimate time of contact, Hobbs usually kept moving past me. He would then turn around, and get another scratch. As our relationship grew, Hobbs would present his massive cheeks for a deeper, slower scratch. These sessions were very special, and I thoroughly enjoyed this contact with such an immense but sensitive animal. I think I miss this more than just about anything else I did with Hobbs.
I have had the pleasure of working with Hobbs through all sorts of adventures and misadventures. We were always 'best friends', and looked forward to seeing each other. As Hobbs got more comfortable with me, he would 'purr' for me. Big cats aren't supposed to be able to purr, but Hobbs could, after a fashion. Hobbs rarely purred for anyone except me. When Hobbs figured out that I was going to stay down by him, he would roll on his back and look goofy. This was Hobbs at his most very relaxed. I have lots of pictures of him doing this.
In late 2002, we had a terrible windstorm in the Reno area. The zoo is in one of the windiest areas of Reno. I remember working at the zoo that day. We saw an emu almost fly. A tractor-trailer overturned in front of the zoo. I watched the shingles blowing off the roof of my house, as all the neighbor's horses ran through my yard. (I live next door to the zoo.) We struggled to do any zoo chores that day at all. I finally went home, hoping and praying I would still have power. I happened to look out the window that overlooks the zoo, and saw an amazing sight. Hobbs and Tasha were out in the exercise run. (not in their cozy house!) Hobbs was laying on his back, slowly opening and closing his big mouth. He must have really enjoyed how that stiff wind was blowing on his body! There was just enough light left that I was able to get a picture of him doing this.
Kelly, Hobbs' other 'adopted keeper', also had Hobbs trained to jump up against the fence to his full height-- nearly 12 feet! A time came when we needed to measure how tall he was when he did this. But just the weigh-in many years before, he stubbornly refused to cooperate, especially if anyone had their camera at the ready!
When Hobbs was relaxed, but not sleeping, he had an interesting 'mannerism'. He would twitch the tip of his tail (which had a black tassel on it, like a lion). You could sit there and watch that tail tip twitch every which way. If I would move slightly, or make a slight sound, the tail would twitch faster and harder. To this day, I wondered what he was thinking about. But, I am sure thay were good thoughts!
In the last year or so, Hobbs started to slow down a bit. He would still play and stalk, and act goofy. He just didn't do it as much. He also seemed to be a bit more protective of Tasha than he had in previous years. Hobbs was getting old. The nominal lifespan for a liger is 15 years. Hobbs had just turned 14.
Being so big, Hobbs had an enormous appetite. He got 14 pounds of hamburger-like meat a day. But, he could easily eat 50 or 60 pounds at a sitting. When in his finest form, he could eat his 14 pounds of food in about a minute and a half.
Hobbs had incredibly deep feelings and emotions for the people he loved. He could read your feelings and act accordingly. To back this up, one day, Hobbs was somehow sad about the way he thought he had acted towards me the day before, and came up to greet me, crying. This was really touching, and a behavior I have only seen once in any other cat.
Bev, one of the other cat keepers at the zoo was down with Hobbs one Sunday morning. It was on Sundays that I worked at the zoo in those days. I must also preface that my house is next to the zoo, overlooking the big cat area. Bev was talking to Hobbs. She told Hobbs that 'Tim is coming today'. Recognizing the name, Hobbs immediately looked up at my house! Somehow, I think Hobbs knew that I lived there, and that I watched him from my house. He would often look up and stare in the direction of the house. I am not sure he could see me, but cats do have excellent vision.
In early January of 2007, I observed from my home, a most amazing sight. Kenya and Hobbs were sleeping together, snuggled up along the fence between Kenya's enclosure and the run. Normally, these two cats kept their distance from each other because they were both intact males (although Hobbs was naturally sterile). This was not a one-time occurrence. I saw them do this a number of times over the next few weeks. I somehow think Hobbs was being friends with Kenya because he knew something we didn't.
It was just a few weeks later that Hobbs started to not feel well. I started to spend extra time with him, and I am glad I did. He had developed liver problems, and it took his big life quickly.
At about 10:30 on Friday, February 23rd, I got the call from the zoo. The zoo manager, Lori was bawling. Hobbs was dying. I dropped what I was doing and rushed to the zoo, because I knew that Hobbs needed his best friend to be there in his time of need. At 7:50 PM that evening, my big friend Hobbs breathed his last breath with me by his side. It was a terrible experience to have to watch such a magnificent creature die. But, it was also a strangely thrilling experience to have helped my big friend make that very scary step into the next life. Hobbs knew he was loved, and that one of his good friends was with him to help, as only a friend can at those times.
But, a big cat like Hobbs has a big spirit as well. Before that sad night was over, I felt a large presence giving me a 'big cat rub' in my spirit. Over the course of the next several days, Hobbs has 'visited' frequently. Sometimes, it seems like there is a liger loose in the house! But that is OK. I love Hobbs and Hobbs loves me. Hobbs 'told' me that 'I done well for him' on that terrible day. He told me to think pleasant thoughts about him, which I am trying to do more and more as my grief abates. Then one morning, I was awakened by a gentle 'big cat rub'. Hobbs was calming me, as I had experienced a nightmare just a little while before. He then taught me how to purr like he did when he was alive. I have since starting purring like a liger whenever I need to relax or calm myself. Or, if I am just feeling good. (It drives my domestic cats nuts, though!) Hobbs has also reminded me that no matter what, we will always have each other. And then one day when the Great Lion calls me home, we will be together forever!
Hobbs, you were the best big friend a person could ever hope to have. We played with each other, played tricks on each other, and spent many happy hours just enjoying each others' presence. Having you choose me to be your friend is a privilege that could not be bought for all the riches of this world. Although I will miss your enthusiastic greeting in the morning, and your roaring at night, I know you are with me in spirit. Our separation will be but a brief one in the scheme of things. Before we know it, we will be together again forever!
A good friend of mine inspired me to write this.
I have a 900 pound spirit-cat who is watching me much of the time. This spirit-cat loves me very much. Sometimes I think I can tell he is there; most of the time, I can not. There is a void fixed between us at this time, which makes it like trying to sense his presence through a thick, heavy veil. This cat longs to play with me again, or play a trick on me. Or, eat out of my hand. Or, just to enjoy each others' physical presence.
Some day, the Great Lion is going to tell him, 'Go, and bring your friend Timmy home. It's his time, and he is ready'. This spirit-cat will know exactly what to do-- the same thing that his friend did for him when he had to cross that horrible chasm. This spirit-cat will know that his friend will need just as much help as he did, but he will also know that he will make it safely across. 'A loving stare from my golden eyes, and my reassuring purr will strengthen him for the journey' this spirit-cat says to himself.
The kind of bond that I share with my spirit-cat friend can never be broken, never for all the forces in the universe. We will be reunited again someday, never to be separated again. And in that relationship, I feel the pure love of the Great Lion Himself!
Tim Stoffel, 4-7-2007