When Bengali the tiger arrived at Popcorn Park in Lacey Township, he had no will to live, General Manager John Bergmann said.
Ten years later, he became a staple of the animal sanctuary and is remembered as a “beautiful beast.”
In January, Bengali, 24, was transported to a dog and cat specialty hospital where NorthStar Vets operated.
Staff at Popcorn Park had noticed that Bengali had been lethargic and disoriented, Bergmann said.
“From working with these guys all the time, we knew something was off,” he said.
Blood was taken for testing, and suggested Bengali could have an insulinoma, a tumor of the pancreas, which secretes high levels of insulin, leading to severe hypoglycemia.
After further testing, the diagnosis was confirmed. He was brought in for a five-hour procedure and the specialists removed the “large” tumor from Bengali’s pancreas.
Days later, Popcorn Park had reported that Bengali died.
“He has crossed over the Rainbow Bridge to be with those who once also called Popcorn Park their home,” Popcorn Park’s Facebook page said. “We were so fortunate to be able to share in his life for the last 10 years. Until we meet again. Good night my friend.”
Bengali came to Popcorn Park from a “sanctuary” in Texas 10 years ago, Bergmann said. A woman had rescued big cats but it quickly became a “hoarding situation” and she could not take proper care.
“He was very ill,” he said of Bengali’s arrival at Popcorn Park.
Bengali came to the zoo severely underweight — a mere 180 pounds. Tigers typically weigh at least two times heavier.
He also needed work done on his teeth and was blind in one eye.
“He had a horrible life before he came here. You could count all his ribs,” Bergmann said. “He looked like he had no will to live.”
Bengali’s eyes were glassed over, Bergmann said, as if he was looking through him.
Bengali spent three days inside his den and when he came out, he saw a female lioness in the next cage and began pacing along the fence, he said. At that point, Bengali was still weak and had to take a rest with every few steps.
“He did that every day,” Bergmann said. “He started getting stronger.”
It took two months for Bengali to be able to keep his food down and put on weight, he said.
“I believe it was the will to live because of the lion Porsche,” he said.
Eventually, Bengali began to recognize the staff of Popcorn Park. He would pace along the fence and greet the staff with a sound known as Prusten, like a breathy snort. According to Sea World, tigers use the noise as a friendly greeting or a reassuring call.
“He finally acknowledged us,” Bergmann said, recalling the moment as his most memorable with Bengali. “The day he acknowledged us, he trusted us; he started communicating with us.”
As Bengali grew stronger, his coat became a more vibrant red color, he said. Bergmann likened the transformation to metamorphosis.
Without Bengali at Popcorn Park, things don’t feel quite right, he said. But, life must go on as the staff has other animals to treat and care for.
“Just knowing Bengali was here for 10 years made us feel good that we could provide that for him,” Bergmann said. “He didn’t have to live the last years of his life like the first part. He shared his life with us. That’s the important thing.”
Many Popcorn Park supporters have taken to Facebook since Bengali’s death, remembering the tiger as “beautiful” and “majestic.”
“He was rescued by the park 10 years ago and lived a safe, happy life there,” Lisa Neuman said. “I've seen him myself, and I can tell you he was simply magnificent.”
Barbara Lathrop said looking at photos of Bengali brought her tears and a smile — tears to say goodbye but a smile for the “happy life” he lived at Popcorn Park.
Bengali enjoyed playing in his pool and stretching in the sun, she said.
“He looked forward to every morning and often peppered the park with his roars of contentment and pleasure. He learned that life could be good and people could be trusted,” she said. “Thank you Bengali for the awe and joy you brought to the faces of the thousands who got to meet you. We wish you peace and love on your journey home."