A Conversation with Kara Arundel, Author of “Raising America’s Zoo”

raisingamericaszooFor this installment of “Zoo Walks through History,” I have the extreme pleasure of interviewing Kara Arundel, author of Raising America’s Zoo: How Two Wild Gorillas Helped Transform the National Zoo (Mascot Books, 2017). Kara has a personal connection to the National Zoo’s history and the events that unfold in her book. In 1955, her father-in-law, Arthur “Nick” Arundel (childhood author of Nicky’s News) and formerly enlisted Marine, participated in a safari expedition in the Belgian Congo, only to return to DC with an infant gorilla under each arm. Moka and Nikumba would become the first gorillas since 1932 to reside at the National Zoo and would help pave the way for SNZ to become a highly respected institution for gorilla conservation and research.


How did your father-in-law transition from Nicky’s News fame to presenting Moka and Nikumba to the National Zoo?

Dr. William Mann was a close friend of the Arundel family. Mann had been the National Zoo’s director in 1936 when an 8-year-old young Nicky Arundel started a neighborhood newspaper to advocate for giraffes at the National Zoo. Mann was still zoo director in 1955 when Nick Arundel, went on a pleasure safari to Africa and brought back two baby gorillas for the National Zoo.

What were those initial conversations like between Nick and the zoo regarding the gorilla transaction?

The first two gorillas at the National Zoo came in 1928 and 1931, but both died after only a few years at the zoo. By the 1950s, Dr. Mann decided he wanted bring gorillas back to the National Zoo. From the 1920s through the 1950s, zoos often acquired gorillas by contracting with hunters. But as early as the 1940s, many African colonial governments started putting restrictions on hunting, including the number of gorillas that could be captured. Mann was negotiating with his international contacts to get gorillas, but the zoo couldn’t afford the steep price for two young gorillas.

Nick was not involved in these negotiations but when Nick and his family began planning a family trip to Africa, Nick and his father offered to help capture gorillas and escort the animals to America.

How were Russell and Nick able to get past the restrictions in place for obtaining and exporting gorillas?

That’s an excellent question. The National Zoo had permits to export gorillas. But documents from the Smithsonian Institution Archives—and Nick Arundel’s journals—talk both about Nick capturing the gorillas as well as donating $10,000 to the French Equatorial African government, which already had two gorillas in captivity. The book lays out these two narratives and the sources.

I conclude in my book that it was more likely the Arundels paid the F.E.A. for the gorillas. Nick, however, was a formerly enlisted Marine and CIA operative who worked covert missions in Korea and Vietnam. His capturing gorillas with the help of natives may have been unlikely but not impossible in 1955.

I’m trying to imagine myself on an airplane with two baby gorillas. It must have been a bit easier than bringing back, say, two giraffes, but still a challenge!

Yes, that’s definitely not allowed these days. At first, Nick had a hard time finding an airline to fly him to America with the baby gorillas. Sabena Airlines, a small Belgian airline, agreed after Nick promised to have newspaper photographers on the tarmac when they touched down in New York to take pictures of the gorillas—and the plane. Nick prepared baby bottles of infant formula and packed diapers for the trip. He had also spent nearly a week with the gorillas getting them used to him as their temporary caregiver. Nick also had the gorillas examined by a veterinarian in the Belgian Congo who discovered that Nikumba had a cold and a parasitic disease that causes diarrhea. The young gorilla was put on medicine right away and Nick determined he was well enough to fly.

It was winter so the gorillas traveled with Nick in the passenger cabin with airline passengers taking turns feeding the baby gorillas with bottles. The trio first stopped in Brussels where a heated truck drove the gorillas to the Antwerp Zoo where they rested for the night. The next day, Nick and the gorillas flew on another Sabena aircraft to Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy Airport) where, as Nick promised, a waiting press corps took photos.


Record of 1955 gorilla arrival, Smithsonian Institution Archives

One of the themes of your book that I found fascinating was how the practice of acquiring animals for the zoo has changed dramatically and how much the welfare and care of the animals has improved so much. We have learned a lot about zoo management since the 1950s! I’m sure your father-in-law would love seeing the gorilla spaces evolve from smaller cages to much larger exhibit spaces and large outdoor yards.

The zoo’s transformation is a prominent theme of the book. In no way am I discounting the efforts by earlier zoo leaders and the challenges they faced, such as rations for World War II efforts and budget disagreements between the federal government and District of Columbia. There is evidence throughout the zoo’s history that compassion for animals was a top priority.

Significant changes began happening in the 1960s and 1970s, however, when international and national conservation agreements were enforced and more was known about gorillas’ behaviors in the wild. These developments really influenced better animal management practices at zoos.

Nick Arundel, who was one of the first board members of the Friends of the National Zoo and later a FONZ board president, wanted a first-class zoo, and he was impatient with what he saw as slow progress. In the 1970s, when he was FONZ president, he called the National Zoo a “national disgrace.” He was so excited when the Great Ape House and its adjacent outdoor play yard opened in 1981, allowing Nikumba his first opportunity to step on grass since leaving Africa. Nick continued to support the zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute until he died in 2011.

Nick Arundel visits the outdoor gorilla exhibit during the Friends of the National Zoo’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2008.

One other fascinating part of your narrative is how many men transitioned from big game hunters to conservationists—starting with William Hornaday and continuing with the members of the African Safari Club. How do you think that “lightbulb” turned on where they realized that the hunting of exotic wild animals was no longer desirable?

Nick was a member of the African Safari Club, whose members met regularly to discuss the sport of hunting: the weapons, animals, and places. Nick and four other members formed the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation in 1961 when they became concerned about the loss of protections for African wildlife during decolonization. The original goal was to help train Africans to manage the continent’s wildlife resources. Their change of heart came alongside the global realization that exotic wild animals need protecting to ensure they won’t go extinct.

Some of the early AWLF members still supported and participated in the sport of hunting non-threatened animals, though they found it difficult to explain the difference between protecting some animals while hunting others.

The title of your book, and the part you have a personal connection to—the gorillas—is certainly a major storyline in the book, but you weave in so many more interesting stories about the zoo’s history. Was your intention to focus on the gorillas but ended up branching out more?

I always had a sharp focus on the story of the gorillas at the National Zoo. I began researching the book simply because I wanted to learn more about how Nick captured two gorillas and brought them to America. Over the five years it took me to research and write the book, I learned so much more about the National Zoo, the people who worked there, and the animals who lived there. The full history of the National Zoo’s gorillas could not be told without understanding the stories of the gorilla caregivers, other animals at the zoo, and the spirit of cooperation of zoos across America as they grew their animal conservation missions.

Your book is so well researched. You must have camped out in the Smithsonian Archives! When you were poring through these artifacts, did you stumble upon any surprises?

The Smithsonian Institution Archives collects and preserves all the documents from the Smithsonian Institution museums, including the National Zoo. I was amazed at how much documentation SIA kept since the zoo was founded in 1889. There were reports, letters, maps, photos, oral histories, and more. It would have been very difficult to tell the stories in my book without all the available historical documents.

SIA’s Reading Room is in Washington, D.C., is free and open to the public. I made nearly two dozen visits to review the National Zoo’s files. On one trip, I was reading through a primate log book from the 1970s, which had handwritten notes from the keepers about what each animal ate, their behaviors, and social activity. As I was turning pages, a clump of black hair fell onto my lap! I examined it closer and realized it was probably gorilla hair. I put it back between the pages and kept reading. I never knew what I’d find in those files and luckily, I never found any live animals!

Mandara—“Super Mom”! I was very excited that you included the legendary story of her “adopting” baby Baraka—much like when she “borrowed” Moke last year. Wouldn’t you love to know how her “adoption” of Baraka really unfolded?

Absolutely! “Mandy” as some keepers affectionately called her gave birth to her first offspring in 1991 when she was only 7 years old. Kejana’s birth was the first gorilla birth at the National Zoo in nearly 20 years and the young Mandara proved to be an excellent mom. Just 11 months after Kejana was born, another female gorilla gave birth at the Great Ape House. The zoo was closing for the evening and Haloko went to a behind-the-scences part of the gorilla exhibit. About 15 minutes later, Mandara appeared holding Haloko’s newborn baby—Baraka Ya M’Welu. No one knows if Haloko gave Baraka to Mandara or if she took him from Haloko, but Haloko did not appear to try to get her infant back. Mandara continued to nurse and care for both Kejana and Baraka. Mandara would have five more healthy babies at the National Zoo over the next two decades.

Moke hitching a ride on Mandara’s back in July 2018. Read about this event on the SNZ website: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/news/gorillastory-moke-and-mandara

Now that Moke has been born, you realize your book needs a second edition, right? (No pressure!) Are there any future projects on the horizon?

I would love to write a second edition of Raising America’s Zoo! There are many more animals, animal caregivers, and advocates that deserve to have their stories shared. I’d love to hear from everyone’s suggestions. Please write to me at karacarundel@gmail.com.

I cannot thank Kara enough for sharing her insights. If you have not already, pick up a copy of her fascinating book. She has inspired several of my blog posts thus far and certainly many more to come!

Kara will also be discussing her book at the Tenley-Friendship Library in Northwest DC on Wednesday, March 6 at 7 p.m. I hope to see you there!

Jack Hanna’s Circus Stunt

When zoos are looking to draw more visitors through their gates, they will often hold special events—exhibit grand openings, birthday parties for popular animals, or holiday light displays. Some are certainly more creative than others. Let’s just say that Jungle Jack Hanna, in his early days as director of the Columbus Zoo, had a few ideas of his own.

Hanna, one of the most famous faces of the zoo world from his appearances on the David Letterman Show and Good Morning America to his energetic public appearances promoting wildlife conservation, was hired as the director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978. At the time, the zoo was in really bad shape—only 350,000 visitors walked the 90-acre grounds that year. In fact, many Columbus residents didn’t even know the city had a zoo. Hanna, although pretty much a stranger to the world of zoo directorship, had just the energy and positive outlook that the zoo needed to bring a boost to the zoo’s budget, staff morale, and overall reputation in the zoo community. You would even find him walking the grounds after hours picking up trash.

Jack Hanna doing what he did best—entertaining. Photo: Columbus Zoo

In those early years as director, his zest for public relations helped him procure some big donations from prominent Columbus businesspeople. His energy and lofty aspirations were quite attractive, and he made it hard for these donors to turn him down. The first big project of his directorship was the renovation of an old elephant yard into an outdoor gorilla habitat. The gorillas were the most popular animals at the zoo, especially with a celebrity in their midst. Colo was the first gorilla born in captivity in 1956, and the Columbus Zoo’s gorilla program, also known for its successful breeding, was very well respected in the zoo community. The outdoor yard was the first project of many that would bring animals out of cages and into more natural habitats.

As improvements were being made and visitorship began to climb, Hanna also was becoming one of the most prominent faces in the city. From 1981 to 1983, Hanna hosted Hanna’s Ark, a television program that aired on the local CBS affiliate in Columbus. He and his co-host, eleven-year-old daughter Kathaleen, brought the zoo animals into Central Ohio residents’ homes on a regular basis. Thus began Hanna’s television career, making both himself and the Columbus Zoo household names.

During the early 1980s, however, the Columbus Zoo experienced some cuts in federal funding, and the zoo needed to generate more revenue locally. Jack Hanna’s creativity and enthusiasm went to work overtime, as what he came up with was pretty darn crazy. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?

[W]orking with him was never boring.  –John Switzer, zoo reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, on Jack Hanna

The Flying Wallendas, a popular circus and aerial stunt act, was known for entertaining audiences all over the world—tightrope walking across massive gorges, waterfalls, and giant sports stadiums—often with no safety netting. In 1978, Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous family, fell to his death during a performance in Puerto Rico. Since the incident, booking the Wallendas was viewed as super risky. Apparently not to Jungle Jack! He contacted Enrico “Rick” Wallenda, who was looking to make his comeback, and offered to hire him for an event at the zoo. Wallenda enthusiastically accepted.

Hanna himself admits that what happens next was really boneheaded in retrospect. . . .

On May 15, 1982, fifteen thousand visitors flooded through the zoo gates to witness Rick Wallenda tightrope walk a span of 80 feet across the outdoor tiger enclosure. No one was injured or killed, and the crowd was quite entertained. At one point, Wallenda dazzled his spectators with a headstand, and at another he faked a fall. The nervous Hanna muttered, “Can’t he just walk across?” The tiger was given a huge steak bone to gnaw on, so, other than emitting a few growls it was not super interested in the circus act going on 40-feet above it. Afterward, Wallenda called the act “kind of a thrill.”

Enrico Wallenda
Enrico Wallenda performing above the tiger enclosure at the Columbus Zoo, May 1982. Photo: Columbus Dispatch

However, the professional zoo community, particularly the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA, now the AZA), was not as amused. The executive director chastised Hanna for acting in a way that violated AAZPA ethics. Hanna explains, “I had exploited the Bengal tigers through showmanship, not zookeeping. . . . I apologized. . . . But deep down inside I was still thrilled about all those people we drew. Looking back today, however, I would rather have no visitors than initiate a performance like that again.” Hanna brought the zoo back from near extinction on his energy and good vision, but that was not one of his better ideas.

I’m a promoter. They never know what I’m going to do next. —Jack Hanna, 1983

(This event was immediately followed by a tug-of-war match between Belinda the elephant and a group of Ohio State University athletes.)

The next year, Hanna received the publicity he needed, through more “natural” means. The zoo made history on October 25, 1983, when gorilla twins Macombo II (“Mac”) and Mosuba were born—the first set of gorilla twins born alive in a U.S. zoo. The zoo found itself in the national spotlight again; Hanna proudly introduced the new babies on Good Morning America (his first appearance on the popular show), and visitors flooded to the zoo to witness history. (Mac still lives at the Columbus Zoo, and Mosuba resides at the North Carolina Zoo.)

Jack Hanna cradles twin baby gorillas, Mac and Mosuba. Photo from Jack Hanna’s Facebook page.

In terms of local financial support, beginning in 1985 local voters would pass the first of many tax levies to support the zoo’s improvement plans.

Today, the Columbus Zoo spans 588 beautiful acres, and over two million visitors enjoy the park annually. Hanna retired in 1992 but still serves as Director Emeritus and makes occasional appearances at the zoo. He is also very active in promoting wildlife conservation worldwide. As pronounced on the zoo’s website, “The staggering variety of animals, habitats, and immersive experiences that define today’s Columbus Zoo would not exist without the efforts and visionary leadership of America’s favorite zookeeper, Jack Hanna, and his commitment to making the world a better place for animals and people everywhere.”


Columbus Zoo website. https://columbuszoo.org/home/about

“Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.” Ohio History Central. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Columbus_Zoo_and_Aquarium

Cox, Billy. “Chasing the Ghost.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. http://chasingtheghost.heraldtribune.com/

Ellis, Mark. “Walk leaves tigers empty.” Columbus Dispatch, May 16, 1982: A1.

Gray, Kathy Lynn. “Jack Hanna: Zoo’s master planner and builder to celebrate 35 years.” Columbus Dispatch, September 15, 2013. https://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/09/15/master-plans-master-builder.html

“The Flying Wallendas.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flying_Wallendas

Hanna, Jack. Jungle Jack: My Wild Life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Hood, Marshall. “Salesman in a Safari Suit.” Columbus Dispatch, June 6, 1982: G1.

“John Switzer: Reporting on Jack Hanna was never boring.” http://gatehousenews.com/jackhanna/john-switzer-reporting-jack-hanna-never-boring/


Mohini Rewa, “First Kitty”

Another celebrity animal called Smithsonian’s National Zoo home, but unlike Smokey Bear (rescue cub) and Ham the chimp (retired Air Force veteran), Mohini Rewa arrived in DC with a completely different, “enchanting” story.

What made Mohini such a celebrity? When she arrived in the United States in 1960, she was the only white Bengal tiger outside India. The only known white tigers were found in the Rewa district (now part of Madhya Pradesh), with only nine sightings in the wild. The last known wild white tiger was killed by hunters in 1958, leaving behind only those bred in captivity. Four of these rare exotic tigers resided at the palace of the Maharaja of Rewa, from whom Mohini was purchased. She was basically considered royalty.

Like how so many exotic animal stories begin, this one started with a hunting trip. Ralph S. Scott, a DC realtor and attorney participated in a hunting excursion to central India. Upon seeing the gorgeous white animal (presumably one in captivity), his goal was to bring one to the National Zoo. He recruited billionaire John Kluge, president of the Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation of New York, to help fund the purchase. After an agreement of $10,000 was reached with the Maharaja, Theodore Reed, director of the National Zoo, headed to India to select and escort his tiger back to the United States.

Reed chronicled his India excursion in a 1961 National Geographic article. Upon his arrival at the palace (also present was SNZ carnivore keeper Bert Barker), Reed fell in love instantly with the two-year-old, 190-pound Mohini (named for her father, Mohan, and translates as “Enchantress”): “Her stripes were black, shading into brown, but her main coat was eggshell white instead of the normal rufous orange. Exotic coloring and magnificent physique made her a tiger without peer.” Smitten, Reed said, “I was glad that financial details had been completed before I came to India. How could I have made a canny bargain after seeing these magnificent cats?” Reed selected Mohini out of a litter of four white cubs.

As she came closer, I was astonished by her perfect development. Her ice-blue eyes were peculiarly aloof, yet inquisitive. I extended my clenched hand in the experienced animal handler’s form of greeting. Daintily, she licked my knuckles. Fortunately, bars separated us—her fangs were three inches long.

—Theodore Reed, Director of the National Zoo, on Mohini

According to Reed, bringing Mohini back to the United States proved quite a nerve-wracking ordeal. In fact, Mohini almost didn’t leave India due to problems with the financial exchange and a heap of customs red tape. Can you imagine traveling halfway around the world only to be told that you cannot leave with your $10,000 purchase? Reed was indeed informed that a ban on the export of white tigers had been implemented before he could leave the country. After getting the U.S. Ambassador involved, however, the anxious Reed and his white enchantress made it out of India in time.

On December 5, 1960, the royal Mohini was officially presented to President Dwight Eisenhower on the White House lawn, according to funder Kluge, as a “as a gift to the children of America.” In a humorous exchange during the ceremony, Eisenhower told Reed that Mohini wasn’t as white as the tiger he saw in India. After Reed explained that Mohini was a bit dirty from her 10-day, 8,000-mile journey, the smirking president asked who was going to bathe her. Reed replied, “Happily, she does that herself.”

If she were human, she’d be a moviestar.  —Theodore Reed, Director of the National Zoo

President Eisenhower meets Mohini at the White House:

Mohini was an instant celebrity at the zoo. Not only was the First Kitty gorgeous, she was also the only white tiger residing in any zoo worldwide at the time. Reed was not shy about expressing his immediate desire for more white tigers, but given that Mohini was barely two years old, breeding her would have to wait a bit.

Photo of Mohini in the 1961 Smithsonian Annual Report.

(SNZ trivia tidbit: A few months after Mohini arrived, Ambika the elephant would begin her 47-day journey from India aboard the S.S. Steel Architect “as a gift from the children of India and the Maharajah of Mysore to the children of America.” Ambika celebrated her 71st birthday at SNZ in August 2018!)

The white color of these Bengal tigers is due to a genetic condition that nearly eliminates pigment in the normally orange fur; ergo, white tigers are not their own subspecies—all white tigers carry orange genes. When a tiger inherits two copies of the recessive gene for the paler coloration, the result is a white tiger. However, this means that to produce more white tigers, much inbreeding is involved, which then leads to various health issues, physical defects, and premature deaths. This story is certainly no different.

Mohini was such a popular animal at SNZ that the Friends of the National Zoo used her likeness for its logo before the pandas arrived in 1972. Friends of the National Zoo logo on a recruitment letter, circa 1960s. Courtesy of Kara Arundel.

The breeding of Mohini became more of a reality with the arrival of Samson on January 5, 1963 (the same year that Ham the chimp arrived at SNZ). Samson, purchased from a zoo in India, was orange in appearance but carried the recessive gene. In fact, he was both a half-brother and uncle of Mohini. Samson was placed in the same enclosure as the royal lady, and acts of mating were reported in the local newspaper. Fingers were crossed—most tightly by Reed—for the first white tiger cubs ever born outside of India.

Mohini ultimately had two litters of cubs with Samson. The first arrived on January 6, 1964, with one white cub and two orange cubs. It was such a big deal that the birth was broadcast on national TV. When the lion house was reopened to the public six weeks after the birth, there were long lines of people eagerly awaiting a peek at history. The Smithsonian annual report that year noted that some visitors arrived at the lion house in the morning and stayed until closing time. (Sadly, two of the cubs, Ramani, the female orange and Rajkumar, the white male, died of feline distemper in August 1965.)

Mohini’s second litter with Samson arrived two years later than the first, on February 5, 1966. One of cubs was stillborn and the other a female orange named Kesari. Although there was initial disappointment that the surviving cub was not white, Kesari thrived and went on to have many cubs of her own at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a litter of four white cubs in 1976, all of which were cross-eyed. (Over 70 white tigers have been born at the Cincinnati Zoo, which is where Siegfried and Roy purchased the white tigers for their performances. Cincinnati’s last white tiger, Popsy, died in 2018.)

Mohini with cub Kesari, 1966. Source: The Smithsonian Torch (https://torch.si.edu/2018/02/feb-5-1966/)

Sadly, Samson contracted a degenerative kidney ailment and passed away in November of that year at age eleven. The surviving male orange cub from Mohini’s first litter, Ramana, became her mate after Samson’s death. (As Washington Post puts it, “Ramana is Mohini’s son, cousin and half-nephew, and he hardly knows her” [29 Nov 1966: C1].) It was not surprising, given that Ramana was so young when he was reintroduced to his mother, that keepers did not witness any mating between the two tigers.

Just when it was looking grim that Mohini and Ramana would ever mate, two little surprises (to everyone, even her keepers) arrived on April 13, 1969—one orange male cub and one white female cub. The former lived only 48 hours due to birth defects, but the white cub named Rewati became the prized cub that the zoo had anxiously awaited for several years. Mohini’s keepers observed the mother like a hawk, and after a bit of nervous, obsessive licking behavior by Mohini, the keepers pulled the cub from her mother. Rewati, a cross-eyed white cat (a common defect in white tigers), was hand-reared by Theodore Reed’s wife, Elizabeth (at the time anonymously due to privacy concerns), in their suburban Maryland home. (Elizabeth wrote about her experiences with the cub in the April 1970 issue of National Geographic.) Once she became too rambunctious for human care, Rewati was returned to the zoo, along with an orange cub that was purchased to be her playmate. (What fun it would have been to watch them romp around!)

Photo of Rewati in 1969 Smithsonian Annual Report.

At the time of Rewati’s birth, there were still very few white tigers outside of India (and only around 30 known in the world). There were six at the zoo in Bristol, England, and one new acquisition at the zoo in Miami. But the National Zoo still had a monopoly on white tiger births in the United States.

That designation was about to end, however. Mohini did give birth to another litter on March 8, 1970, this time a litter of four cubs, two of which were white. In a tragic accident, after 48 hours Mohini crushed and killed three of the cubs while in labor with a fifth (stillborn) cub. The surviving cub, a white male named Moni was hand-reared, again by Elizabeth Reed.

Photo of Moni in the 1970 Smithsonian Annual Report.

Her name is Rewati, and she is flighty and cross-eyed. She used to walk in circles, but she cut that out. One of her brothers, Moni, used to walk in circles too, and act kind of funny. He finally died, apparently from the stress of being a white tiger and vastly inbred.

Phil Casey, “The Great White Hope.” Washington Post, March 19, 1973

Sadly, Moni died unexpectedly of a neurological disorder at just 16 months old. The Reeds were crushed. Dr. Reed, however, was still determined to mate his matriarch and produce more cubs. A male named Poona arrived on a six-month loan from Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, but Mohini did not become pregnant.

Scientific name: Panthera tigris
Mohini in 1973. Photo: SIA Acc. 11-009, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Scientific name: Panthera tigris
Mohini’s daughter, Rewati, in 1973. Photo: SIA Acc. 11-009, Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1974, the old and decrepit 1891 lion house at SNZ was bulldozed, and the big cats were shipped to other zoos temporarily until their new (current) digs were built (Ramana and Kesari were sent to Cincinnati, and Mohini and Rewati went to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago). They returned to SNZ in May 1976. Still no cubs. Mohini was becoming a senior cat at that point.

Mohini did not give birth again after Moni’s litter. She lived until 20 years of age, which is a very long life for a big cat; she was humanely euthanized after experiencing complications of old age on April 2, 1979. (Apparently the skins and skulls of Mohini and Moni are in the Smithsonian’s possession, but are not on display.) Theodore Reed “mourned his queen the late Mohini Rewa.” At the time of her death, two of her white grandchildren, Priya and Bharat, lived at SNZ through the 1990s, and the last white tiger at the National Zoo, Panghur Ban (known as “Taj”), a great grandson of Mohini, died in 2002 at the age of eighteen.

Photo of Taj from the zoo’s website.

Mohini started the white tiger legacy in the United States, and her bloodlines still exist in zoos and sanctuaries today. (In fact, every white tiger descends from her father, Mohan.) A 2011 population of white tigers at accredited zoos numbered 55, but I have not been able to locate a more recent count. In 2012, the Species Survival Plan smartly instructed zoos to cease the breeding of white tigers, as the inbreeding had become out of control (PDF). (Inbreeding was not uncommon in zoos before the founding of the Species Survival Plan in 1981.) Many of the white tigers found in zoos are rescues from the illegal exotic pet trade. You can find one such tiger, Luther, at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

Luther at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Photo: Linda Knippers

Majestically beautiful, however long as they roam in captivity, their beauty will never disappear.


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Rovner, Sandy. “A Star Is Dead.” Washington Post, April 3, 1979: B1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/04/03/a-star-is-dead/2d3182c8-d77b-46a3-8c2e-96431de60a9f/

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