ROCKWELL — Guttural, growling noises come from a cage where the three M's — Mohan, Malia and Meka — are up and curious, wondering what's happening in their exercise area.
The Bengal tigers watch as Nick Rich and Jared Rautio place discarded Christmas trees in three different areas of the play pen.
For good measure, as if the scent of fir weren't enough, the men and Tiger World Operations Manager Katy Massey add extra smells to the trees, such as lavender and buck urine.
“You're going to pick up the buck urine one,” Massey tells Rich.
With the trees in their spots and the staffers safely behind the fences, the door to the holding cage opens. The tigers make an immediate dash toward the trees, like linebackers targeting a quarterback in the pocket.
As they tackle the trees, wrap their 400-pound bodies around them and even pick them up by their teeth, it's obvious the trees serve as catnip for these tigers.
The towns of Rockwell and Granite Quarry, which make curbside pickups of their residents' discarded Christmas trees, deliver their trees to Tiger World, rather than putting them through the municipal wood chippers.
“One man's trash is another man's treasure,” Massey says.
Also, as part of a January special, customers who bring a Christmas tree gain free admission to Tiger World, an earnest rescue zoo for exotic animals, including 30 tigers.
Home to 50 large cats
Tiger World has about 50 large cats total, also taking in species such as leopards, lions and lynxes. About 85 percent of Tiger World's residents overall — they include wolves, bears, monkeys, reptiles and New Guinea singing dogs — are rescue animals.
“Tigers just love those Christmas trees — I don't know why,” says Kim Cress, the head maintenance man in Granite Quarry.
It has to do a lot with scent — the piney aromas apparently are a different, intriguing perfume. Massey laughs, recalling how a tiger tried to pee on her the other day, “because I smelled different.”
The more active cubs, which include Thor, Star (a lion cub) and Storm, go even crazier when they have a new tree to play with.
They hang onto the tree for a ride as Rich, Tiger World's facility manager, drags it back and forth in their habitat.
After this particular exercise, Rich looks at his hands, wondering whether they are sticky with tree sap or tiger drool.
Storm — a 10-month-old, 160-pound snow tiger — cuddles, rubs and spoons with the same Christmas tree after Rich throws it into an empty tub.
“Rub-a-dub-dub, I took my Christmas tree into a tub,” Massey says, beaming at Storm's infatuation with the tree.
Besides their enticing aroma, the Christmas trees simply present a new element — a curiosity for the tigers.
“It's a new stimulus,” Massey says. She compares it to bringing a new book or teaching tool into a kids' classroom.
“Animals are the same as people,” Massey says. “They're fascinated with something new.”
Over different seasons and holidays, the Tiger World staff provides the cats with watermelons, pumpkins and papier-mache Easter eggs as playthings.
Massey says the tigers also have fun with bamboo shoots and leaf piles. They love the smell of pine straw and cedar chips, too.
“We think out of the box as much as possible to give them as much entertainment as we can,” Massey says.
Rich says the adult tigers never waste more energy than they have to. With the Christmas trees, he adds, their approach usually is, “OK, that was great, love the scent, but now I'm going to relax.”
Christmas trees also go into the homes of many of the other animals. The timber wolves especially enjoy tearing them apart.
The staff likes to place food for monkeys into Christmas trees because it gives them a chance to forage.
This is sort of the off season for Tiger World, though it is open most days and on the weekends.
To stay open — it's located at the end of Cook Road off N.C. 152 between Rockwell and China Grove — Tiger World depends on owner Lea Jaunakais, four full-time staff people, interns and lots of volunteers, from college instructors to Boy Scouts.
Just keeping things clean and the animals healthy are tall orders, as is dishing out 5,000 pounds of food and special vitamins per week.
Massey and Rich, who are engaged to each other, came to Tiger World a year ago as a package deal from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Moving from MGM
They both worked for the hotel's lion habitat, which closed permanently last Jan. 31. Visitors to the MGM Grand watched the lions through glass as they roamed within a $9 million, 5,000-square-foot structure.
The lions in the MGM habitat rotated in and out of the exhibit — 20 at a time. Otherwise, they lived at the 8.5-acre Cat House ranch, where Massey and Rich also worked for trainer Keith Evans.
As Massey walks the grounds of Tiger World, she can't hide her excitement for the slow, steady improvements being made at the zoo.
Massey hopes the facility eventually can attain accreditation through the Zoological Association of America, but the cage heights for the big cats, now 14.5 feet, will have to be at least 16 feet to be ZAA-worthy.
Rowan County has required Jaunakais to carry $1 million of insurance on Tiger World, given the number of large carnivores housed here.
Meanwhile, Tiger World also is working on raising money to build a better bear habitat, next to its pond. A new office and gift shop is in place, complete with a glass wall that allows visitors to watch the antics of lion and tiger cubs such as Storm up close.
At this particular moment, Storm has the new Christmas tree to herself, as she lounges in the tub.
“She's obviously the dominant one, so she gets it first,” Massey says.
Rub-a-dub-dub. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.