Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 11, 1999

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Tiger trainer Khris Allen snuggles up against a Bengal
tiger. He considers the big animals his "kids."

These tigers are like
pussycats -- no lyin’

By Stephanie Kendrick
Assitant Features Editor


BEFORE you take your children to the 1999 Honolulu Jaycees 50th State Fair, know this; until the day they turn 18 and you can legally kick them out of the house they will bug you about wanting a pet tiger.

You can blame Khris Allen.

Allen is the lead trainer for the fair's Bengal tiger show. A biologist by training, he has lived and worked with tigers for eight years. And he does live with them. "I'm within 15 feet of the cats year-round," he said.

Allen and girlfriend and fellow trainer Colleen Perkins went along on the three-and-a-half-day sea voyage that brought the tigers to Hawaii. The tigers usually travel well, he said, and though this was their first ocean voyage, it was no exception.

The cats enjoy new sights and smells and seemed particularly excited by the dolphins they saw en route, said Allen. He and Perkins, on the other hand, got seasick.

But a bit of physical discomfort doesn't seem to bother Allen if it is the price of being with his "kids."

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Tiger trainer Khris Allen clowns around with a couple
of the Bengals. His tiger show at the 50th State Fair
consists partly of unstructured playtime to give the
audience a glimpse of how the tigers interact with each other.

The fair's tiger show consists partly of "playtime." This unstructured exhibition of the way the tigers interact with each other and Allen gives the audience a glimpse of a truly remarkable relationship. "It's just playing with my kids," said Allen.

But these are not your usual kids. The largest tiger Allen brought along weighs in at 650 pounds. And they are fully functional, complete with all their teeth, all their claws and all their hormones, which can inspire aggression and moodiness in animals as well as humans.

Watching the tigers with Allen might make you think you could just walk up and pet the big kitties, but that's not a good idea. While the cats don't have any animosity toward humans, they are territorial and would look at an unfamiliar person approaching their cage much as you might a stranger walking into your house, said Allen. They might figure out real quickly that they like you, but they would be more likely to want to defend themselves.

Allen believes anyone who wants to work with tigers must first earn their respect. He said his first question for a prospective tiger trainer would be "Do you want to go over there and pet that tiger?"

"If they say 'yes' I wouldn't give them a job," he said. "I don't care if you say you trust that animal. That's not the point. They have to trust you."

The tigers are not "fixed" because Allen and Josip Marcan, the Florida veterinarian who owns the animals in the show, breed the tigers. Allen has delivered about 100 cubs while working with Marcan.

The youngest of the eight tigers Allen has brought to Hawaii is 14-month old Sunam. He weighs 250 pounds. Allen weighs about 140. Sunam, being a rambunctious youngster, often tackles Allen during playtime. It is a move that would be terrifying if it were not so obviously a display of affection, but it's still a bit hard on the bod.

Allen's injuries as a trainer have been confined to the occasional scratch or bruise; and sore muscles resulting from tiger tackles.

But you don't have to watch him play with his kids for very long to know he thinks it's worth it.

Allen uses verbal commands to take the cats through the more structured routines in the show, followed by rewards of horse meat. "They're very food oriented," he said.

The tigers eat 10 to 20 pounds of horse meat and beef every day. Their diet might be one argument in your favor in the "I want a pet tiger" debate.

Pet tigers are much more available than one might think. As a result of a slew of shoddy breeding programs in the 1980s, there are places on the mainland where you can buy a tiger for $500, said Allen, less than the cost of many pure-bred dogs. But you don't know what you're getting. And with an animal that can grow to more than 600 pounds, you probably don't want to experiment.

It is responsible captive breeding that is important because these animals don't have much of a future in the wild, said Allen.

Wild Begal tiger population estimates range from 1,800-4,700, according to The Tiger Information Center at

Most of the remaining wild tigers live in protected areas of India, but the threats posed by poaching and poisoning are as dangerous to the species as habitat erosion, according to the group.

The Bengal tiger show offers entertainment as well as education about these stunning creatures.

A final warning: When the announcer tells you to stay away from the tiger pen, listen.

Though you may not be risking your life to ignore him, you are risking a nasty-smelling load of laundry.

Cats mark their territory. Big cats mark their territory in a big way. And the tigers have a tendency to spray anyone who gets within striking distance.

Why? "When something (or someone) new comes into their territory, they want to claim it. That's the psychological answer," said Allen.

But when they nail somebody, Allen swears he can see them smile as they walk away.

"I think they find humor in it," he said.

Bengal tiger shows

Bullet Where: Honolulu Jaycees 50th State Fair, lower parking lot of Aloha Stadium
Bullet When: Fair runs today through Sunday and June 17-20.
Bullet Fair hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Thursdays and Fridays; noon to midnight Saturdays and Sundays. Tigers are on display during fair hours
Bullet Show times: 6:30, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 1:30, 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Bullet Fair admission: 12 and older are $2 before 6 p.m. and $3 after; children 4-12 are $1.50; children under 3 are free. Tiger shows are free to fair goers

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