Trainer sees the softer side of tigers

Eric Orkney shares a moment with 10-year-old Bengal tiger Chandaka during his days with the Temple of the Tiger show.
Eric Orkney shares a moment with 10-year-old Bengal tiger Chandaka during his days with the Temple of the Tiger show.

"Chuff" is what you call it when a tiger gives you a good morning kiss. Or at least says hello. Mystic's Eric Orkney knows this because, well, he's spent a lot of time with tigers.

"A chuff is a tiger's main vocalization, a greeting," Orkney says. "Sometimes a chuff can be slobbery and sometimes it can be dry, but I never take a chuff for granted. They're good things."

Though he and his seven-member team of trainers spent much of the last decade hand-raising six Bengal tigers - animals that, yes, he thinks of as his own kids - Orkney has been separated from his brood since last September. The animals were the core of Orkney's Temple of the Tiger program at Six Flags Great Adventure park in New Jersey, which Orkney conceptualized as an educational, interactive, family-happy presentation where the cats performed amazing feats completely consistent with their natural behavior - jumping, swimming, climbing and so on - in a replicated natural environment.

Orkney and his team worked with the animals in a context of "operant conditioning," he says. The tigers' behavior and interaction with trainers is extremely timing-specific and reinforced with toys, praise and treats in various combinations that become symbolic to the animals.

The shows - Orkney and his crew wrote a new production each year - had proven immensely popular at Six Flags. They drew millions of fans and won three different first-place "Best Live Entertainment Show" awards from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). Most important, they let folks learn about cats in indigenous circumstances - and that the worldwide population of tigers in the wild has shrunk in the last century from more than 100,000 to less than an estimated 3,000.

But a year ago, in spite of their success and without warning, Six Flags axed the Temple of the Tiger program.

Orkney says the amusement park had filed for and emerged from bankruptcy and experienced subsequent shifts in management personnel and corporate philosophy. Then, after an incident in early 2010 at Sea World in Orlando, when a killer whale grabbed and drowned his trainer during an exhibition, Orkney says Six Flags management grew concerned with liability issues - despite the tiger show's stellar safety record.

For whatever combination of reasons - and Orkney still isn't sure why - the program was canceled.

The park retains ownership of the animals. At first, Orkney says Six Flags agreed sell him the cats for a reasonable fee. Later, he says, Six Flags rescinded the offer and won't sell.

The veterinarian in charge of the Six Flags Wild Safari Animal Park, Dr. William P. Rives, forwarded Day questions to the park's media relations department, which did not respond.

At its peak during Orkney's era, the Temple of the Tiger consisted of 33,000 square feet of naturally designed environment with two natural pools. The animals received top veterinary care, feeding and daily hands-on training and play with Orkney and his team - members of which remain, he says, on-call should financing for a new show develop.

After the program was dropped, the tigers were moved to a facility in the park's Six Flags Safari. Describing their situation, Orkney has to pause several seconds as he struggles for emotional control.

He finally says, "It's very sad. It's like they're in a zoo. There are no pools for them to swim in, no stimulation or exercise other than the basic necessities. They're wasting away. It's horrible and it's absolutely a regressive situation. The breakthroughs we were making in carnivore care, across the board, were just inspiring."

He says it was very difficult when he was allowed to go back to see the tigers. "Their eyes light up when we arrive. But they're pacing around and nervous; you'd never see that in our environment. They were used to a completely natural and nurturing environment. They had a very rich lifestyle. You develop an incredible bond with them and you can absolutely quantify the relationship between the cat and the trainer. We both rely on it."

Now, in a downspin economy, Orkney has been trying all possibilities to get the program picked up by an existing park or casino, or to find new funding from individual investors.

"I've been working nonstop for a year trying to get a sponsor. My priority is to get the cats because it's not a good situation for them. It's not a good situation for me," Orkney says.

After the show run ended in New Jersey, Orkney moved into his father's home in Mystic; his family is from the Groton area and he grew up in Durham. Here, he's devised a comprehensive business plan. He spends his days exploring funding avenues and pitching the proposal, which he's titled "Team Tiger." He says there has been interest, and plenty of people and corporations have been sympathetic, but it's a delicate financial time.

"It's nice to be back in New England," he says. "It's home. I just loved animals from the start. Even when I was a little kid, my brother's nickname for me was The Lion Tamer."

He says he originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but decided it would be even better to actually train animals. "And from the word go, big cats just amazed me."

Orkney studied psychology and wildlife management at Penn State and Sacred Heart and interned at Bridgeport's Beardsley Zoo. He was then accepted to an elite program in Washington state where would-be cat trainers receive certification after working with animals that have been retired from circuses or animal shows or given up by private owners.

He says the first time you get into a cage with a 500-pound tiger is a pretty indelible experience.

"You know, I wasn't that scared. There was a little anxiety. Mostly, I was excited. It's all I'd ever wanted to do. And once I got in the cage, it was all confirmed for me, everything I'd wanted," he says.

From there, after auditions and interviews, Orkney was accepted to work as a trainer with Siegfried and Roy.

"They're really nice people and they obviously care very much for their animals. I was amazed I got the chance to audition," he says. "I guess it went well because they asked how soon I could get to Vegas. It's, ah, the most successful entertainment show in history, and I knew I would learn so much. I didn't waste much time packing up my Jeep," Orkney says.

He worked two-and-a-half years for Siegfried and Roy and left, he says, on excellent terms. "Theirs is a Vegas show, built around illusion. They take wonderful care of their tigers, but I wanted to go on my own and do a show devoted to education - completely natural. I knew people could be utterly amazed by the tigers just doing tiger things. There are no flaming hoops or riding motorcycles. And it worked. It will still work."

Training tigers is Orkney's life and priority. Over the course of his career, he's only become more and more committed to their welfare as a species. Plus, nothing would make him happier than to be reunited with his animals from the Temple of the Tiger years.

"If you could see them," he says slowly. "They have so many different emotions and sensitivities and each has a distinct personality. Yes, they're wild animals and they're carnivores, but are they also affectionate. Absolutely. You see it most of all in their eyes. They know you and trust you."

That, presumably, is where the chuffs come in.

Orkney smiles. Thinking about his cats has made him happy. "I think if they could speak, they'd tell you the best way to interact with them. Just don't act like a deer and you'll probably be fine."

r.koster@theday.com

Faruk shares a nuzzle with Orkney.
Faruk shares a nuzzle with Orkney.
Left: Sister and brother tigers Hara (left) and Balin relax in the snow with trainer Eric Orkney.
Left: Sister and brother tigers Hara (left) and Balin relax in the snow with trainer Eric Orkney.
Top: Tiger Chandaka performs a shoulder rise with Orkney. Right: Faruk enjoys a belly rub from trainer Eric Orkney.
Top: Tiger Chandaka performs a shoulder rise with Orkney. Right: Faruk enjoys a belly rub from trainer Eric Orkney.

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