Painting a tiger's face was like holding a tiger by the tail Friday for the cluster of third- and fourth-graders seated at a long table next to the Buffalo Zoo's Amur tiger exhibit.
It was hard work.
As the adult tiger Sungari frolicked with her 2-year-old daughter, Thyme, in the yard a few feet away, several of teacher Mike Behnam's art students from Early Childhood Center 61 on Leroy Avenue dabbed paint on the borders of the sketch paper in front of them.
Few seemed eager to fill in the orange, black and white on the faces that artist Ramon "Ray" Dennis had outlined on each piece of paper before the outdoor art class celebrating International Tiger Day got down to business.
Were they worried about getting the colors in the right order, or just saving the tastiest part for last?
Gentle cajoling from Joanna Angie, executive director of Buffalo Arts Studio, finally nudged the process forward.
"You're doing wonderful, but we only have an hour together so we'd better get paint on the canvas," said Angie, who supplied materials for the session.
The children also might have drawn some inspiration from Dennis, who, as they worked on their drawings, stood hunched over nearby, adding the final stripes to his full-sized picture of a tiger at rest.
A Buffalo State College student and protege of Angie's, Dennis lost his hands and most of his forearms at age 10, in an electrical accident in his native Russia. He has learned to "arm paint" by gripping the brush with the stumps.
In the end, most of the youngsters completed their sketches -- even if the colors were sometimes misplaced.
The idea behind the event, of course, was to draw an educational connection between the magnificent animals cavorting in the exhibit and the dwindling number of tigers roaming free in the Amur River Valley of their native eastern Siberia.
"There are only about 500 in the wild, Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes noted during the Tiger Day ceremony, organized by Time Warner Cable.
Breeding a "backup population" of captive tigers and other endangered species is imperative, she told her young visitors, "to make sure that when you grow up there are still animals in the wild."
Since a global survival plan for Amurs was initiated in 1982, the number in captivity has risen from 83 to about 160, making them the most extensively bred tigers. There are about 255 tigers in three subspecies -- Amur, Bengal and Sumatran -- in the global breeding plan.
Buffalo's two year-old twins, Thyme and the male Warner, who was not on exhibit for Friday's art class, are among the more recent additions to the captive population.
The cable company contributes to their care through a partnership with the zoo.
International Tiger Day was started by the Phoenix Fund, a Russian organization supported by the Save the Tiger Fund and other donors.