Rajah, a North Carolina tiger whose rescue made national headlines, has died

Rajah, one of the most well-known tigers at a North Carolina rescue group, has died 16 years after his rescue made national headlines.

In 2005, Rajah was found wandering on the side of a road outside Charlotte with a 6-month-old tiger cub by his side.

In the years since, Rajah became a favorite at Carolina Tiger Rescue in Chatham County. He was one of the most social tigers at the Pittsboro sanctuary and acted as a “figurehead” for the organization, said Louise Orr, spokesperson for the rescue group. (CTR was known as Carnivore Preservation Trust when Rajah was found.)

“We feel incredibly lucky to have known him for the 16 years he was with us,” she said.

Rajah died Feb. 13 after being diagnosed with cancer, Orr said. Staff had treated him for gastrointestinal issues and lethargy, but the problems remained. An ultrasound found tumors on his spleen, and he was diagnosed with hemangioscaroma — a cancer of the cells that produce blood vessels. A veterinarian and the sanctuary’s assistant director made the decision to euthanize him, Orr said.

It was a hard call, but ultimately the right one, Orr said.

“His quality of life would not improve,” she said.

Rescuing Rajah and the 6-month-old cub, named Kaela, was a “turning point,” for the organization, Orr said. Roughly three years before the cubs were found, Orr said CTR had placed a moratorium on new rescues. But the arrival of Rajah and Kaela ended the moratorium and ultimately shifted CTR’s mission to focus solely on rescuing wild cats.

In the wild, tigers live 10 to 12 years, Orr said. But in sanctuaries, they can live up to 20 years. Kaela, who lived in an enclosure with Rajah for most of their lives, died in 2017. Two CTR tigers, Mona and Mogi, died last year at the age of 22, she said.

Orr described Rajah as “always one of the first animals people would meet,” explaining he would walk on his side of the fence alongside tour groups. She added that he loved to “chuffle” at people, an exhalation of air that acts as a sort of greeting for the tigers.

He lived a laid-back life, according to the rescue group’s website, and enjoyed chasing after passing trucks and lounging atop his den in the afternoon sun.

No legislation prevents owning tigers in NC

It’s not clear how Rajah and Kaela ended up on the road near Charlotte. No one ever came forward to claim them.

North Carolina is one of only four states in the country with no statewide laws or regulations against owning a non-native or exotic animal, including tigers and other wild cat species. Orr said she believes Rajah and Kaela were likely privately owned.

“He was fortunate to find his way here,” Kathryn Bertok, the assistant director of Carolina Tiger Rescue, said in a Facebook post announcing his death. “He will live on as an example of why we believe tigers should not live as pets. He will remain an illustration of why North Carolina should have laws in place to protect both our residents and exotic animals.”

CTR warns that wild cat species like tigers can be dangerous animals, and should not be kept as pets for the safety of both people and the animal. The organization supports only federally accredited sanctuaries and believes wild animals should be kept in captivity only if they cannot survive in the wild, or are otherwise in danger of extinction.

Orr said rescues can come from shutdown roadside zoos, private homes where owners realize the animals are difficult to care for, or closed sanctuaries. Sometimes, she added, they can come from extremely poor living conditions, such as a breeder who kept them in a filthy R.V. without light.

Most of the sanctuary’s rescued tigers are the offspring of multiple, different sub-species bred at unaccredited facilities like roadside zoos, Orr said. They can’t contribute to the preservation of the endangered subspecies.

Only around 3,900 tigers worldwide remain in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Remembering Rajah

Rajah will be remembered as a beloved creature by those at CTR and others in the community.

“Through my interactions with him in the past year, he quickly became a very special part of my life,” Orr said. “And I know that every single staff member, every single volunteer, every single adoptive parent, has those same memories of him.”

Rajah will be cremated, she said. Ordinarily, his life would be honored at an annual memorial service in the spring, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is unclear when and how the service will take place.

For now, there will be a virtual auction Sunday, where a large print of him will be sold.

And when the next memorial does occur, Orr said, his life will be among those honored.

“I know that this year in particular has not been easy on anyone. We have suffered losses and missed celebrations,” Bertok said in the Facebook post about Rajah’s passing. “Though we will not be able to grieve together, know that you are not alone.”

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Julian Shen-Berro is a breaking news reporter at The News & Observer.


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