What's this cat scared of? / Two of S.F. Zoo's tigers are spooked by the image of Sedova, who died in 1992
Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, April 23, 2003
2003-04-23 04:00:00 PDT San Francisco -- Siberian tigers are the world's largest felines. They are also the biggest scaredy-cats in town. In the case of San Francisco Zoo residents Tony and Emily, a mere oil painting of a long-dead predecessor has spooked them into submission.
"It's their instinct to feel threatened by another tiger," said keeper Linda Caratti. "They just haven't figured out it's a picture. Instead, they look totally scared, like it's a giant ghost tiger."
She said their eyes bulge out, their mouths hang open and their ears rear back whenever they see the painting -- a portrait of Sedova, a wildly popular Siberian tiger who died at the zoo in 1992 after a 19-year reign.
Tony and Emily often refuse to come inside, even at feeding time, and won't turn their backs on the 8-foot-square work of art.
For 10 years, the tigers and the painting coexisted without incident in the zoo's lion house. It wasn't hard: Tony and Emily lived on the far west end of the oblong room, where they couldn't see Sedova's face gazing down from the extreme east end.
Their first encounter occurred last year when the lion house was being renovated and they were temporarily moved to another cage, with Sedova in full view. Caratti gave the 11-year-old siblings 30 days to get used to the painting. They never did.
PAINTING COVERED OVER
Their keeper finally covered Sedova with a drop cloth. "I figured we should stop tormenting them," Caratti said. "Animals are more important than pictures.
But it is a magnificent portrait -- kind of a testimonial to one of the zoo's most beloved cats."
After the renovation was complete, the tigers returned to their old quarters, only to be displaced again in the fall because lions needed the space.
The latest eviction is permanent, and this time there's no cloth on the painting: The tigers will have to make peace with the ghost of Sedova.
Everyone who knows Tony and Emily finds their behavior perplexing -- clearly an emerging genre at the zoo. A few months ago, Penguin Island was the scene of a mysterious eight-week mock migration that ended in mid-February after the penguins had racked up more than 6,000 poolside miles.
"To really know what's going on in animals' heads -- we don't really know," Caratti said.
MOVE THE PAINTING?
It would seem easier to deal with the tigers' predicament than to stop 52 penguins from whirling around. Why not just move the painting or take it down?
It's not that simple. There's no other wall space in the lion house big enough to accommodate the painting, which is anchored to the concrete. Removing it would be unthinkable: It's a crowd favorite, as cherished by some visitors as the cats that are alive.
"People were always asking about why it was covered," Caratti said.
She finally unmasked Sedova and tried mounting a large board on a pole to block the painting from the tigers' perspective. They were still freaking out, however, so she added another barrier -- three large, strategically placed, potted palms.
The tigers at first found the trees as alarming as the painting but have settled down for now -- although at least one visitor tried to feed the palm fronds to the cats.
"It's a quick fix," Caratti said.
People who knew Sedova when she was more than just pigment say the painting looks remarkably like her. And her piercing gaze is unnervingly direct.
"Wherever you stand in the lion house, you look up at her and she's looking right at you," said Jack Castor, the zoo's keeper of big cats for 48 years until he retired in 1999.
Castor, 79, hand-raised Sedova and about 300 other large felines. He brought 85 of them home, where his dog, a German short hair, once nursed a baby tiger.
"Sedova was very friendly," Castor said. "She was really just a doll of a tiger -- one of the best I ever had. She died on April 8, 1992. That broke my heart."
Sedova became a legend because of her exceptionally gentle and patient disposition. Castor said the tiger would allow 20 or 30 schoolchildren at a time to line up and pet her. Zoo patrons regularly visit her portrait as if it were a shrine.
"It would be a shame to cover it up or take it down," Castor said. "People would take pictures of that painting."
He said tigers have phenomenal eyesight and can perceive the painting as one of their brethren. Still, he's a bit surprised at the Siberians' reaction.
"Emily was such a laid-back cat," Castor said. He conceded that Tony was "a little skittery. If anything was different, he was reluctant to come in. . . . I used to take a wheelbarrow out there. If I brought a box instead, he didn't like it."
Oakland artist Dan Fontes spent about two weeks in 1990 painting Sedova from a photograph. "That was one of my more successful paintings," he said. "The trueness of the spirit of the animal came through."
Clearly, Sedova's spirit is still coming through. And no one has an easy answer for soothing Tony the tiger and his sister.
"Has anyone thought of returning them to the wild?" asked Fontes.