When the kiss comes from a 22-pound, snow white Bengal Tiger, you just chuckle and nuzzle your face into his beautiful fur — provided you can get him to stay still long enough for you to melt right down, down, down into those soft beautiful eyes.



I heard interesting things were going on at Zoo World in Panama City Beach, so I headed over with Odile Guidry of Destin to check it out. The zoo has a program that allows you to sit down within an enclosure with a young cub, rub them and play with them.



This trip brought us face to face with “Loki,” named for the Norse God of Mischief. He is visiting the zoo and is one of less than 60 in the entire world.



He is available for play until he reaches 40 pounds, but after that, no public contact will be allowed for safety reasons.



Dr. Josip Marcan, a veterinarian and owner of Loki, chose the zoo to help socialize the tiger.  He is being cared for and fed by zoo staff around the clock.  He goes home with staff, is bottle fed and returns to the zoo every day. When he reaches 40 pounds, Loki will return to Dr. Marcan’s large wildlife reserve, where he will roam, be hand raised and will remain for his lifetime.



In the wild, these beautiful creatures are extinct.  But someday, if enough of these tigers can be raised around the world, the population may become plentiful enough to release some back into nature.



Odile and I just missed playing with a pair of lion cubs as they had reached the 40-pound limit. I of course, grumbled and complained and wrung my hands over the missed opportunity, but let me tell you something;  when I peeked into the lion enclosure and saw the size of those two babies with paws already the size of your worst nightmare, I demurred to the safety of the “you-can’t-shred-me-from-here” place.



I quietly and sweetly asked Stephanie Sinnett, the director of education at the zoo and Loki’s No. 1 bottle feeder, to please enter the enclosure and take a few pictures for us. “Hodari” is the male lion; his name comes from a Swahili word meaning “cunning and strong.” He might reach as much as 600 pounds when grown.  “Zuri” is the soft, light brown, female and her name comes from a Swahili word meaning “beautiful.”



She will reach 300-400 pounds upon maturity.  The natural habitat of the lions is the savannah of Africa, but these two were bought from a breeder in Florida and will grow up here in Panama City Beach and stay at Zoo World.  It will be fun and interesting to keep up with them as the months and years pass.



I understand that Zoo World is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and they pride themselves on the close contact encounters that helps fund the animal’s food, education and conservation efforts.



I asked about the costs to keeping the animals at the zoo. “Buying just apples, oranges, bananas, lettuce, celery and kale for the primates, runs about $40,000 a year and for the big cats, probably $20,000,” Stephanie replied.  The Zoo has fundraisers going on now as they hope to purchase two giraffes with the female costing $60,000 and a male $25,000.



The zoo is just less than 7 acres and they have a petting zoo for the kids with goats, pigs, ponies and sheep.



In all they have 260 animals with 150 different species.



Odile and I looked in on the leopard enclosure and Stephanie explained, “No two leopards have the same markings or colors but each one is unique, much like our human fingerprints. This leopard is naturally found in Africa from the rain forest area and has resided here for several years.”



We then visit the colorful blue and gold Macaws. They show off their black feathers that create a pattern across their face, each one different, giving zookeeper a great way to ID each bird.



But I keep thinking about that kiss. When this tiger is fully grown, I will not ask a kiss of him as he will reach upward of 550 pounds. It was an awesome experience to be with Loki as a baby, and I’m hoping there will be some way to keep in touch as he grows older.



At any rate, different close encounters always become available. After the tiger, perhaps a grey wolf, lemur or other animal will come out to play.



Thanks to Tom Walling, assistant zoo director, and Stephanie for the time they spent with us.  It brought us a moment when we could look into the eyes of a wild beast and see a mischievous twinkle followed by a playful romp on the chest and a kiss that will be remembered for a lifetime.



Laura Hall is a Destin resident and regular gardening columnist at The Log. When not nuzzling up with lions in the zoo, she tours gardens with her dog Annie.