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Tiger show highlights fast dying species in the wild

SEBRING - Daruba gave the audience a really wide-toothed smile and even mustered on cue a few hellos - tiger style.

Some in the audience laughed; a few others clapped.

The 650-pound white male Bengal tiger may be the largest of the Frisco tiger family but it's the two oldest females - Sara and Tianna - who call the shots, those gathered at the Highlands County Fairgrounds learned.

Four tigers, one tiger cub and a 19-year-old tiger trainer Tuesday were part of the Highlands County Fair's newest animal attraction - The Bengal Tiger Encounter.

The cats rolled side by side, swiveled on stools, jumped up and down, and one even smiled and greeted the audience as Felicia Frisco cajoled them with treats and friendly entreaties.

Felicia, who has been training and raising big cats all her life with her family, is the youngest female tiger trainer, said her mother, Linda Frisco.

Doing animal shows has been a family tradition for several decades, started by her father-in-law, Joe, who was a zoo manager, Linda Frisco said.

Now, the family performs 15 weeks out of a year, and the 20-minute-long educational up-close encounter tries to bring awareness to an alarming statistic - only 3,200 tigers are left in the wild.

"Eventually, the only ones that are going to be left are those in captivity," Linda Frisco said.

The audience also learned there are eight subspecies of tigers - from the Siberian to the Sumatran - and they all love the water.

As for those tiger stripes, they are like human fingerprints.

No two stripes are the same.

The Frisco tigers are some of those big cats born and bred in the United States. Many, such as 3-month-old Kulpa, came to the family as cubs.

As Kulpa pranced around the enclosure, what the audience saw was not a wild animal but a regular baby with stripes, hankering for its bottle and needing to be burped.

Linda Frisco told those gathered that cubs like Kulpa typically gain seven to 10 pounds a month and top out at 350 to 400 pounds.

While the audience got a chance to see a tiger cub up close, it also gave the cub a chance to get comfortable with people and learn to do a few things - such as sit up on top of a stool.

One of the popular acts of the show was a female tiger bouncing on her hind legs.

It was Jonathan Patterson's favorite part of the act.

Training tigers requires trainers to spend time with the animals, bond with them and watch their personalities, Linda Frisco explained.

While the animals in their care are domesticated, the Friscos never forget they have wild instincts. They may be playful one-on-one with a big cat, in a group they never let their guard down in case they get attacked from behind.

Knowing the tigers' personalities is important, she added. Tigers are also "honest" about their feelings and when they want to be left alone, they let you know.

"We can read them pretty well," she said.

Sometimes the tigers get into fights and may scratch each other.

"When we see them we stop them right away," Frisco said.

One of those who got their picture taken with a tiger was Garrett Gibson, a big tiger fan, while Noel Tubbs got to feed the big cat on a long skewer and wanted an encore.

No one tried to pet any of the tigers but seeing them in such close proximity doing things like domesticated animals should not lull people to think they are tame, Frisco said.

That is the one big misconception she has encountered.

"They still have wild instincts," she said.