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.
(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. When a tiger inherits two copies of the recessive gene for the paler coloration, the result is a white tiger; basic genetic rules dictate that there is a 25 percent probability that any given pregnancy will produce the white coloration. 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.
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.)
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Majestically beautiful, however long as they roam in captivity, their beauty will never disappear.
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