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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Tiger Sulks in Korean Cafe




Every night at 8 p.m., Roma Khachaturyan, a Russian-Armenian zookeeper who now lives in Pusan, South Korea, feeds a captive Siberian tiger named Cesar, who lives in a local hotel.


Khachaturyan coaxes the 200-kilogram feline from its larger pen into a holding cage. And then, protected from its powerful paws, he enters the main pen and begins tossing dead chickens and hunks of raw meat to the tiger.


But there is something strange about Cesar's environment. The pen is walled with windows that look in on the Peninsula coffee shop in the Hotel Lotte Pusan, a 43-story luxury hotel in South Korea's largest seaport. The cat spends his daylight hours dozing and his nights pacing and listening to the sounds of the city outside. Thus he provides a diversion for diners swilling house red or mopping up egg yolk with their toast.


For a handful of visitors from Vladivostok recently, it was a surprise to learn that a Russian tiger was living in Lotte, and so we checked it out. The hotel is a universe unto itself: It boasts a department store, 14 restaurants, two performing elephants,a theater and, we were startled to discover during a backstage tour, a whole chorus line of Las Vegas-style dancers wearing nothing but spangled G-strings and feather headdresses.


The president of Lotte acquired the tiger from a traveling zoo in Moscow, and Khachaturyan came along to care for the animal. The tiger's disposition has changed since its arrival.


"As soon as he experienced a little bit of freedom here in the open air, he became very, very dangerous," Khachaturyan said. "He can kill little birds, and it interests him. He looks around and he finds that he is unhappy."


Cesar's lot is certainly better than that of the two Thai elephants, who are shackled in an unlighted cage backstage and perform in the nightly revue, along with the Vegas girls. Two Thai elephant keepers live in a room next to the foul pen.


Once, one of the elephants used its trunk to unscrew the bolt holding his buddy's shackles, and the freed elephant ambled through the department store like a clumsy old gent in baggy trousers. A line of employees shooed the creature back to its prison.


But Lotte's commercial use of an endangered species of tiger has drawn criticism. British and Korean environmentalists have complained about Cesar. And in Russia's Far Eastern Primorye region, where Siberian tigers dwell, wildlife officials are unhappy about the thought of a tiger in a coffee shop.


Boris Litvinov, deputy director of the tiger department of the Federal Department for Protecting Nature, said, "It's a disgrace for our tiger to be there. But people who deal with zoos and circuses have a different mind-set. They just don't care for animals."


Khachaturyan disputes that. He admits that a coffee shop is not the best place for a tiger. But its pen, open to the wind and the rain, is no worse than a zoo, he says. He scoffs at environmentalists who fretted about a tiger living out in the elements. "Do tigers have umbrellas in the wild?" he asked. He adds that there is no way a tiger born in captivity could return to the taiga.


Still, he knows the tiger is melancholy, and so is Khachaturyan at times. Whenever he feels down, he goes and sits just outside the cat's cage. "The thing is, the tiger can speak Russian to me," Khachaturyan said. "So when I am bored, I go talk to the tiger in Russian. What else can I do? He is my countryman."


I have to veer off from the tiger here and explain some egg left on my face by the December elections. Several weeks ago, I wrote a rather apocalyptic column on the election of First Deputy Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein to the State Duma. I had relied on local media, which trumpeted Tolstoshein's election.


There's just one problem. Tolstoshein never made it into the Duma. The local media's confusion - and therefore, my own - seems to stem from the fact that Tolstoshein was not running for an individual district. Rather, he was the third name on the Unity bloc's list of candidates in the Primorye region.


Unity placed first among parties in Primorye, but it did not win a high enough proportion of the votes nationally for Tolstoshein to claim a seat. We can only hope he will give it another try.