The Cheetah Man: Fota Director Sean McKeown on a life working with the wild bunch

Cheetahs peer in Sean McKeown's office window at Fota.

It was a dream that took five years to make a reality. Director Sean McKeown explains to Vickie Maye the significance of the rare birth of a Sumatran Tiger cub at Fota Wildlife Park.

Sean McKeown has an office view that dreams are made of. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the cheetah run at Fota Wildlife Park. Every so often one of them swaggers past the window, sometimes stopping to stare through the glass. There had been talk of a wall to border the cheetahs and the office building when Fota’s entrance was revamped in 2010, but the wildlife park’s director put a stop to that. The view he secured is only right for the person known in the industry as ‘The Cheetah Man’.

McKeown holds the stud book in Europe for the Northern cheetah, deciding if and when they should be bred in zoos around Europe. Under his watch, there has been a hugely successful cheetah breeding programme at Fota — to date, more than 200 have been born, the latest on May 29. The four cubs, two male and two female, went on view to the public for the first time last Thursday. It’s the second birth this year for mother Nimpy.

Cameras are positioned inside the den where the female gave birth. It’s to ensure the cubs, and mum, are safe and secure. The director has access to the camera feed on his phone, he shows me video after video of the cheetah caring for her young, admitting he has a soft spot for the breed.

But we are here to talk about another new addition to Fota Wildlife Park — the new tiger cub. It’s a rare feat for any zoo — just five or six litters of the Sumatran Tiger are born in captivity worldwide each year.

In the wild, the species is critically endangered, with current estimates that only around 300-500 survive.

It’s an especially significant coup for Fota.

Mum Dourga and dad Denar arrived at the wildlife park just three years ago, the first major draw card in the Asian Sanctuary that opened in 2014. Today the tigers have been joined by lions and rhinos.

The additions to Fota allowed for an extra 27 acres to the 70-acre site making Fota potentially a five hour day trip for visits.

McKeown was there to welcome the tigers when they arrived from French and Polish zoos by ferry. Dourga, the female, eased into a routine almost immediately, Denar took some time. They were kept in isolation as they settled, but could see each other. She would call out to him in the early days.

Sumatran Tiger Dourga with her as-yet-unnamed female cub born at Fota Wildlife Park.
Sumatran Tiger Dourga with her as-yet-unnamed female cub born at Fota Wildlife Park.

“He was shy,” recalls McKeown. “She settled very quickly.”

Weekend visited Fota three years ago to meet the team who work at the wildlife park.

It was just days before the official unveiling of the tigers to the public. McKeown spoke then of his hopes to breed the male and female.

As soon as the European Breeding Programme gave their approval, Denar and Dourga were allowed in the same pen, in the hope they would mate.

“They liked each other,” says McKeown.

“She played with him. She’d hide, he’d look for her call out for her, and then she’d creep up and pounce on him.”

There was success on the fourth or fifth attempt though it took time to confirm.

Weight gain was noticed (the tigers are trained to step onto a scales). Towards the end of what was a three- to four-month gestation, Dourga gave birth in a den built by wardens.

He was in Spain when the call came through on May 7. There was a new arrival at Fota.

“It was just fantastic,” smiles McKeown.

It took eight weeks to determine the sex of the cub: a female. Separated briefly from Dourga, she was also weighed and microchipped.

That brief intervention aside, the team at Fota let nature run its course. McKeown and the team observed Dourga introduce her cub outside, nudging her out, making her walk for exercise as she got a little older, introducing her to solids at around seven weeks.

She plays with her too, says McKeown. “She’s a brilliant mother,” he says.

Fota is divided into three sections, the tigers falling under the ‘carnivores’ category with the lions, cheetahs, pandas, tropical house, maras, kangaroos, and all the free-range animals. Warden Julien Fonteneau is one of the team; four people look after these animals daily.

He visibly beams at the mention of the cub, thrilled at the awareness it will raise about conserving this endangered species.

But there’s a real danger to his job too, as seen in the tragedy at Hamerton zoo where a warden was killed in the tiger enclosure.

Julien shrugs.

“Builders fall off scaffolding,” he says, acknowledging the danger in many jobs. And there are strict safety procedures in place. McKeown says they always have “two doors” between animals and people.

Mum and baby will stay together for at least a year but the cub will be introduced to her father next month.

Already Denar is expressing interest and McKeown is pretty confident he’ll be a good father. “He’ll recognise the cub as his,” he says, recalling a gorilla in a European zoo that killed a baby that wasn’t his own, that was born to a female he had mated with.

This cub’s arrival brings to five the number of tigers at Fota today. Another female arrived a month ago.

She will not be bred, under guidelines from the breeding programme, so she is effectively on the pill.

There had been two years of planning to secure the tigers’ arrival — the Asian Sanctuary needed to be funded and built; tigers needed to be secured. In the end, with no funding (a grant for the Tropical House aside) McKeown had to borrow to build it. Incredibly, Fota receives no funding: a non-profit organisation and registered charity, it relies solely on our entry fees and annual memberships for survival.

Phase one of the Asian sanctuary cost €2m alone — but the gamble paid off. Visitor numbers are up, staggeringly so. In 2013 370,000 came to Fota. In 2014-2015 that figure rose to 436,000.

The most recent statistic is 465,000. Within two years, McKeown expects half a million people to walk through the gates.

Staff numbers are up too, from around 45 in 2014 to nearly 50 today. That figure doubles in the summer peak season.

And still McKeown won’t sit back and enjoy the success. He is always striving for more.

He’s been at Fota from the very beginning, moving to Cork from Dublin Zoo where was he assistant director. In the late 1970s when Dublin Zoo decided to create a wildlife park, UCC made an approach. They had acquired Fota Island for its agricultural department and knew it was a good fit. Today the zoo and Fota share some of the same board but day-to-day operations are separate.

McKeown left after 14 years to work in Dubai but returned with big plans and a vision. There was the 2010 entrance revamp for starters. Then the Asian Sanctuary. Now the man who had the vision to bring tigers to Cork wants to use an archaeology site discovered as they developed the Asian area as a base for a new educational and conference facility.

ORIGINS would look at where we came from, and it would include a convention centre and restaurant, with views of the animals in the Asian Sanctuary. Under this plan, bears would also join the wildlife park.

Funding is an issue again — but watch this space. Sean McKeown is a visionary. The man who brought tigers to Cork is on another mission.

Fota Wildlife Park will be celebrating International Tiger Day on July 29 with a day of activities, from free talks at the Tiger Forest to awareness- raising for critically endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger.


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