Tiger feedings give zoo-goers a behind-the-scenes glimpse out front

As soon as Chelsea spotted him, she padded readily to the set of gates.

On the other side of the double reinforced fence, Kenn Harwood, lead keeper of carnivores, hoisted a bucket holding a chunk of ground beef carcass and jabbed a feeding stick into the moist meat.

Chelsea, all 220 pounds of striped beauty, eagerly lapped the food from her side of the gate and a few moments later, her new charges, female Sohni and male Sanjiv, awakened from under a bush, trotted over to investigate the smell and nudged their way to grab a bite.

Keepers at Zoo Atlanta have frequently fed the Sumatran tigers in a public setting, but recently the free demonstration has become regular programming. Every Sunday at 2 p.m., visitors can watch as Chelsea and, usually, her 79- and 90-pound kids, eat and go through behavioral exercises.

Keepers do the majority of training -- such as teaching the tigers to come when called and showing their paws to check their foot pads -- back behind the tigers' habitat. But this 10-15 minute display allows zoo-goers to witness behind-the-scenes activity out front and ask questions of the trainers.

Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, appreciates the educational aspect of the public feedings and hopes it prompts people to learn about the critically endangered Sumatrans.

There are about 90 of the animals, some of the smallest tigers, in captivity in North American and about 3,000 remaining in the wild. The subspecies is also the last in Indonesia.

Snyder said the rapid deterioration of the Sumatrans, which numbered near 100,000 in the early 1900s, is caused by a combination of poaching (tiger bone is extremely valuable in traditional Asian medicine) and habitat destruction in Sumatra.

Zoo Atlanta houses four Sumatrans: Chelsea and the youngsters – the first cubs born at the zoo in more than a decade – and their father, Kavi, who has been recommended for transfer to the National Zoo in D.C. for breeding purposes.

He, however, isn’t usually a participant in the public feedings.

“Chelsea really enjoys the interaction. She’s a little more curious and Kavi is a little more shy around people,” Snyder said.

Sohni and Sanjiv, now 7 months old, will remain with their mother until they’re about 2 years old and eventually head to another zoo as well. Such relocation is common under the Tiger Species Survival Plan, in which Zoo Atlanta participates.

As Chelsea lapped from a bottle of goats milk diluted with water – one of her favorite treats – and Sohni and Sanjiv tumbled with each other alongside her, it was apparent that the family appreciated the attention.

If you go

Tiger feedings

2 p.m. Sundays. Included in admission. Feb. 26 is “Walmart Sunday Funday” with $5 admission. Regular admission is $20.99 (adults 12 and older); $15.99 (children 3-11); $16.99 (seniors 65 and older, military and college students); children 2 and under free. Zoo Atlanta, 800 Cherokee Avenue, S.E., Atlanta. 404-624-9453, www.zooatlanta.org.