Where do I even start? What words are there that I could possibly use that would encompass everything that Shelby was?
Everyone who comes out to the Conservators’ Center and works with these animals loves all of them. No one wants to pick favorites but, undoubtedly, there is that one animal that calls to you. That one animal that you share some special bond with that no one else does, the animal that comes running over when you call them.
For me that animal was Shelby Tiger.
I fell in love with Shelby during my Animal Care internship at the Center in the summer of 2011. She had so much sass and she shared a name with one of my best (human) friends. She is one of the main reasons I began coming back to the Center as a volunteer after completing my internship.
I looked forward to my weekends and being able to see her and sneak her treats when I worked with the big cats. Even after I joined the Guest Relations staff I still made time every weekend to go and spend at least 5 minutes with her. Shelby would always come over, chuffle excitedly, and lay down next to the fence, listening to everything I had to say. She always knew when I was going through a tough time and would hang out at the fence with me longer or offer extra chuffles. She was such an incredibly special tiger, I just don’t know how I could possibly explain what she meant to me.
When Shelby first started showing signs of illness in the summer of 2013 I made a point to spend extra time with her. I bought her turkey legs almost every weekend. Since I work second shift at an emergency veterinary clinic I would often stop by Walmart past midnight on Fridays to pick up the turkey legs (or a whole turkey if I could afford it), earning many strange looks from their employees.
I received even stranger looks when I explained that the meat was for a tiger.
I went so often that the Walmart staff started to recognize me and asked me how Shelby was doing. I didn’t know if she was going to make it through that summer but I was determined to do everything in my ability to help her.
One of my favorite memories of her comes from a good week she had during that summer. The grass in her enclosure had grown almost as tall as me and had to be trimmed, but the maintenance crew left her a few patches of tall grass. She loved them! I went to visit her and she playfully hid in the grass, pretending I couldn’t see her, even though her whole back half was still sticking out of the grass. After a minute or two she gleefully pounced out of the grass with a “Surprise, I was here all along!” look on her face and did a loop around her enclosure.
Shelby steadily improved and she did great though the fall and winter of 2013. Even as she began losing her vision she was still the same sassy tiger that I knew and loved.
Through the spring I tried to spend more and more time with her and when summer hit again she began to decline. Something inside me knew that she wasn’t going to bounce back this time. I’d already gotten one more year with her than I anticipated, to ask for more would be too greedy.
Shelby became more affectionate in the last few months. She met me at the fence every time I visited, chuffling happily and swishing her tail. I knew it was her time when I went to visit and she didn’t even lift her head to look at me. I felt it was her way of saying she was tired and ready to join Spike Tiger again.
Shelby Tiger passed away at 6pm, August 31st, surrounded by people who loved her. Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was as if someone ripped a chunk of my heart out.
I don’t have the words to describe what Shelby Tiger meant to me. She was a one-of-a-kind tiger and I don’t know if I’m ever going to form a bond like that again. I hope she is happy wherever she is resting at now. I hope there is plenty of grass to run in, pools to lay in, and that Spike Tiger is there enjoying all of it with her.
Farewell, my sassy tiger, and thank you for being a part of my life. For me, the Center will never be the same without you.
Guest Relations, Conservators’ Center