Two new Siberian tigers were greeted by excited members of the ZooMontana staff when a truck carrying the cats from Florida arrived at their new home at about 8:15 a.m. Tuesday.
The sisters, Sophie and Jasmine, were trucked to the zoo by Ken Stearns, a co-owner of their former home Dade City's Wild Things, an eco-tourism zoo outside of Tampa, which donated the cats.
The Siberian tigers are about 19-months-old and will occupy the two-acre enclosure vacated by the death of Prince, ZooMontana's 18-year-old Amur tiger, which died in March, likely due to complications from an aggressive cancer.
The tigers were supposed to arrive Monday, but the truck broke down in St. Joseph, Mo., setting their arrival back a day.
"They drove through most of the night last night to get them here for us today," said Jeff Ewelt, ZooMontana executive director.
Stearns said he had to sleep in the trailer with the tigers destined for Billings, and two 5-week-old tiger cubs that were to be delivered to a Portland, Ore., zoo while they got a new vehicle to complete the journey.
"You can’t leave those class one animals unattended," he said.
Dade City made the decision to donate the animals after one of their keepers, a Billings native named Kelsey Johnson, saw posts on Facebook regarding the death of beloved tiger, Prince.
"They actually contacted us," Ewelt said. "Social media, I’ll tell you, it works wonders."
The zoo was exploring other options in Washington, but these seemed perfect, he said. "It will be a better opportunity to learn about the animals."
He also believed that it would attract people to the zoo in the coming warmer months. "I think it's going to do huge things for our attendance this summer," he said.
He also hopes that the tigers will show the community that the zoo is still committed to their mission of serving the community. "I’m hoping it’s a sign that we can still move forward, even though we’re not accredited," he said.
The zoo lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2011, over fears of financial instability. The Philadelphia Zoo removed two tigers from ZooMontana at that time, but Prince remained.
The zoo is now on more solid financial footing. He said the zoo would consider reapplying for accreditation after they can prove that the zoo is financially sustainable.
"It’s certainly on our radar," he said.
The tigers will certainly be the largest addition to the zoo this year, but other development projects are in the works.
This summer they hope to construct a trout pond near the bear exhibit and acquire an Australian bird called a laughing kookaburra. They also hope to build an exhibit that will house golden eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey.
The tigers will spend the next two weeks getting over the stress of their journey before the public is able to visit them, but Ewelt believes their transition will be pretty easy.
"Just by seeing how calm they are, I think they’re going to be pretty good animals," he said.
ZooMontana aims to invite the first visitors to see the tigers June 1.
Siberian tigers are the largest cat in the world. On average, they weigh 500 to 600 pounds.
Only about 500 of the animals remain in the wild, and they are found in the northern forests of Russia, China and the Korean peninsula.
The females are expected to live about 20 years in captivity. In the wild, their lifespan is about 14 years.
As the tigers were unloaded, Stearns was able to reach into the mobile cages and pet the tigers. He said he is able to pet them, because he works very closely with the animals, and believes guests to ZooMontana could build a similar bond.
"We do encounters with them also, so we interact a lot with them," he said. "They can do that same thing to a guest that comes often."
Visitors to Dade City's Wild Things can pay to feed or pet various juvenile animals such as tigers, zebras and lynx. They can also swim with tigers or alligators for $200 per half an hour.
He said he believes the tigers will be an excellent addition to ZooMontana.
"Our whole thing is awareness," Stearns said. "Any time we see an opportinuty to help, that’s what we do."