‘A tigerific time’: Don’t miss Tiger Fun Day at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo

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One of 8-year-old Jade Vazquez’s second favorite animals is the tiger. She’s particularly keen on the big cats because they’re smart. And cunning.

Tzatziki watches the crowd of onlookers Thursday at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo from under the shade of trees in the tiger enclosure. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

The little girl from California likes how they “just calm down their bodies” when they hunt.

Jade smiled from ear to ear after she, her 34-year-old mom Heidi Gonzalez, who is formerly from Hilo, and dozens of others watched Thursday afternoon at Hilo’s Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo as its two resident Bengal tigers showed off their prowess while welcoming a feathered friend — or treat — into their home.

Sriracha, in all her orange-and-black-striped glory, crouched in the grass, honing in on a white peacock that stopped at the tiger enclosure, unknowingly becoming a possible menu item. The tiger stalked her unsuspecting prey for several minutes as zoo administrator Mindy Runnells and a zookeeper tried to distract her.

Everyone held their breath as Sriracha inched closer, eventually dashing for and lunging at the bird, but to no avail. The peacock flew off to safety.

The entire episode thrilled onlookers, including Jade and her mom. And while Sriracha’s white-and-black-striped enclosure mate Tzatziki might have seemed relatively uninterested as he lay and basked in the cool shade of nearby trees, his eyes remained trained on everything.


You can experience the tigers and all their shenanigans almost every day of the week throughout the year, but there’s only one Tiger Fun Day and it’s this Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the zoo grounds.

The annual event is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Pana‘ewa Zoo and also a celebration of Sriracha and Tzatziki’s birthdays. The tigers turn 9 years old this year. They arrived at the Hilo zoo in 2016 when they were just a year old and came from Great Cats of the World in Cave Junction, Ore.

Sriracha takes a drink after playing Thursday afternoon at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

The tigers are the Hilo zoo’s star attractions. It was apparent with the crowd watching Thursday and even more so with the group of keiki racing up to the enclosure after, shouting “Tigers! Tigers! Tigers!”

“They’re definitely our centerpiece,” said Runnells. “They make you smile for sure. Everybody enjoys them.”

She said they’re living their best life.


The exhibit was ahead of its time when it was built. It’s one of the largest tiger exhibits Runnells has seen, and it’s well-maintained by zookeepers, grounds crew and volunteers.

“Everybody can watch them play or lounging or being curious,” Runnells said.

They each have their own personality, too. Tzatziki is a lot like a puppy, being a little more goofy most of the time, whereas Sriracha is often somewhat more shy. They are both active and playful, depending on the time of day and their moods.

Runnells said for tigers, which normally are solitary animals outside breeding season, the fact they get along is great.

They can also be mischievous; they’re like 250- to 500-pound and up to 8- or 9-foot-tall wild versions of a house cat. Tzatziki even has a habit of pulling the plug out of the pond drain, so it might or might not have water in it Saturday when the community is there to wish him and Sriracha a happy birthday.


Saturday will be all about the zoo’s favorite residents, with games, food, activities, prizes and educational experiences.

More than 80 volunteers from the zoo, Friends of the Zoo and other participating organizations will welcome an expected 2,000 or more guests for Tiger Fun Day.

There will be favorite games including the Tiger Toss, Wheel of Fortune and a fishing game where participants can cast their hooks and see what prizes from local businesses they can reel in. There also will be bingo and coloring as well as storytime with Everyday Hero Project. Zookeeper Bob will be playing music throughout the day, too, and zoo passports will be available for keiki who want to become honorary zookeepers.

  • 9-year-old Tzatziki and Sriracha. (Courtesy photo)
  • Tzatziki munches on a piece of his birthday “cake” from last year. (Courtesy photo)
  • Sriracha plays with a new toy she and her enclosure mate Tzatziki got last year for their birthday on Tiger Fun Day. (Courtesy photo)
  • A keiki and a family member fish for prizes during a past Tiger Fun Day at Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo. (Photo from the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo website)
  • Another tiger plush available for purchase at the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo gift shop. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • One of the tiger plush items for sale at the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo gift shop. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Sriracha poses for a close-up. (Courtesy photo by Alicia Flicop)

The Friends of the Zoo also will have some smaller games for those attending to enjoy.

The zoo’s parking lot food vendor Shakedown Treats food truck will be serving up hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled cheese and other favorites, as well as shave ice for those looking for a bite to eat. Lemon Bar, which sold out last year; Bradda pops, new this year; and Kalo & Cream, offering its unique Hawaiian flavors with local and fresh ingredients along with cold coffee, will also be available to satisfy your hunger.

Some of the games and concessions are cash only.

As far as educational experiences, several Hawai‘i County departments will be on hand this year, including the Hawai‘i Police Department; Hawai‘i County Animal Control, which will get the word out about pet safety and proper registration; and Hawai‘i County Department of Human Resources featuring available county jobs.

The Hawai’i Forest Industry Association, which built and maintains the native Hawaiian garden right in front of the tiger enclosure, will be on hand with some gardening and planting activities as well as some garden tours to teach people about local flora and fauna.

The ʻAlalā Project, Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, Friends of the Zoo and a couple of other local vendors also will be part of the event. The Hilo Orchid Society also will have a table where you can talk about orchids and even purchase tickets for its upcoming show and preview party.

There are nearly 20 total stations of activities, games and educational opportunities that will be arranged throughout the zoo grounds. Runnells said it truly is a community event, and this year’s event is a little bigger than the 2023 installment.

The zoo’s other residents won’t be left out. Runnells said there will be other enrichment programs and even special treats in the form of popsicles, smoothies or some kind of activity for the other animals.

But it is Sriracha and Tzatziki’s birthday party. So in true fashion, and like most days, most of the focus will be on them.

Tiger Fun Day zoo map. (From the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo website)

“The keepers have a lot of stuff planned for them,” Runnells said.

They’ll get their birthday treats and presents starting at 10:30 a.m., including their birthday “cake.”

“Birthday cake for big cats is usually not flour and eggs, but it’s blood and bones and meat and good stuff, so the keepers will freeze a bunch of treats into the ‘cake,’ and they’ll be some probably extra treats out and about,” Runnells said.

Sriracha and Tzatziki will also have some new toys to play with that the Friends of the Zoo bought for them, and they love smashing and tearing stuff up just like house cats, so there will be some big boxes, balls of paper and other fun things for them to find to rip apart.

One zookeeper even made pinatas in the shape of the No. 9 for each of them.

“We might be cleaning up orange and black and white paper for a little bit, but it’s all worth it for their enrichment and their benefit,” Runnells said.

Funds raised during Tiger Fun Day help the Friends of the Zoo purchase toys and enrichment items for the tigers and the zoo’s other animals. They also support exhibit rehabilitation and renovations as well as new construction and the introduction of new animals and exhibits.

The entire Big Island is invited to come and enjoy Tiger Fun Day. Runnells said there might be a little wait time for some of the games, but it’s a good event to pop in, especially for at least an hour.

How much fun will it be? Definitely loads.

“Do you want me to say a roaringly good time?” Runnells asked with a smile and some laughter. “A tigerific fun time? I’ll keep going. I can’t help myself.”

The kids will have fun, too: “Rain or shine, I think hopefully it will be a beautiful day,” she added.

Gonzalez and Jade have been in Hilo for a month and will be going back to California soon, but not before Saturday. They plan to attend Tiger Fun Day if they can.

She remembers visiting the zoo to see Namaste, the zoo’s previous tiger that died in January 2014, when she was a kid. Gonzalez said the Bengal tiger was her favorite animal to see not only because he was the most exciting but because he was white and different from other tigers.

Now, she comes to see Sriracha and Tzatziki for a slightly different but somewhat similar reason.

“My daughter really likes them,” Gonzalez said, adding it’s fun sharing an experience she had as a child now with Jade. “They’re one of the favorite animals that we like to see here.”

The schedule for Tiger Fun Day can be found here. If you’d like to download a map of Tiger Fun Day station locations, click here.

For more information, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at
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