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Zoo Knoxville workers haul Malayan tiger across the country in a truck after flight plans canceled

Officials said it took around 40 hours to drive from San Diego to Knoxville, hauling a female Malayan tiger along the way.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Workers with Zoo Knoxville did not expect to take a road trip as they worked to bring Batari, a female Malayan tiger, to Knoxville. They said most of the time, animals would be flown to the zoo.

However, COVID-19 restrictions canceled those plans and zookeepers scrambled to figure out a way to take a tiger from San Diego to Knoxville without a plane. Phillip Colclough, the director of animal care at Zoo Knoxville, said they decided on a tried and true solution — a road trip.

"If they had any idea, 'Look at that family over there, just cruising along listening to the radio,' and meanwhile there's this critically endangered Malayan tiger cruising by them at 60 miles an hour," he said.

Colclough and other workers flew out to San Diego to pick up Batari. They loaded her onto an enclosed truck and drove around 40 hours from San Diego to Knoxville, practically going from the west coast to the east coast while hauling a tiger.

"Obviously, with a tiger, we couldn't stop and rest," he said in a video from the zoo. "We had to drive straight through."

He shared the drive with another worker, and he said both of them were avid road-trippers with their families. He said that Batari was calm most of the time, and they fed her along the way.

"Just seeing the difference in terrains, and the changes in elevation, and the different people, and the different vegetation — we're both biologists, we love plants and we love geology," he said. "Just getting to see all the cool stuff along the way was really, really fun."

He said Batari was a little upset during the first days after arriving in Knoxville. She arrived after being paired with males at the zoo as part of a breeding program. She could spend several days in the clinic quarantining, before going into the exhibit with other tigers.

"It's imperative that we move these animals around for the best possible chances that we can," said Colclough. "It's our job as an accredited zoo to go along with those moves."

He said there are only around 350 Malayan tigers left in the world.