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Partying with a Siberian tiger is one birthday celebration I will never forget

leeay aikawa for the Globe and Mail

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by a reader. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I am 21. That means I've had about 17 birthday parties that I remember. Multiply that by five or six for the number of friends' parties I've attended for each of those years and you've got, well, a lot of birthday parties.

My mom, a child of the fifties, tells me that the parties I've grown up with bear little resemblance to the ones she remembers from childhood.

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Every party now needs a theme, preferably an original one.

"Kids used to be content playing games outside and eating cake," my mom has wistfully remarked.

Now, kids have pool parties, ballerina parties, bowling parties, rock-climbing parties, going-to-a-movie parties, going-to-the-museum parties, hockey parties, soccer parties, Harry Potter parties – and those are only the basics.

Even accounting for inflation, the cost of birthday parties has risen dramatically since the days of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and musical chairs.

Some parents really embrace going over the top.

I remember a girl in my Grade 2 class taking a group of kids to see a Backstreet Boys concert for her seventh birthday, each ticket costing at least $60. Though I had invited that girl to my party earlier that year, she didn't invite me to hers and I was crushed not to be included in the most glamorous outing of 1997.

The Backstreet Boys were one thing, but without a doubt the most memorable party I've ever heard of is also one I attended: the Tiger Birthday Party.

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I met Qadesh, the 13-year-old Siberian tiger famous for her work in Esso campaigns, at Nora's 12th birthday party. Nora's mother was an art professor with a class devoted to sketching live animals. Some time during Grade 6, Nora had gone along to one of the tiger-drawing sessions and been seized with a brilliant idea.

"A live tiger?"

My mom had called Nora's parents to question them about the details of the event and I was listening to her side of the conversation from the hallway.

"I just don't understand how that can be safe. … Well, yes, but … it's a huge animal! … Fine, if Rudy can join her, I'll let Esmé go."

And so my mom volunteered my dad, the man whose infamous cat allergy had prevented my sister and I from ever getting a kitten, to escort me to the party and protect me in case things turned ugly.

I never understood how he was expected to save me from the jaws of a fully grown tiger, but I didn't complain because as long as he came, I was allowed to go.

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The guests gathered on Nora's lawn to wait for Qadesh. Nora lived across from cafés and small businesses, and there were plenty of people around when a beat-up white stretch limo arrived in front of her house.

First to disembark was the driver, a haggard-looking man in his 40s who was also Qadesh's owner and trainer. Then his seven-year-old son, who watched with the guests as the massive 500-pound beast with thick orange-and-black fur and a shiny blue glass eye emerged from the rear curbside door.

A woman walking her Dalmatian down the street froze. So did her dog. I've never seen anyone look so startled as that Dalmatian as he watched a three-metre cat cross the sidewalk in front of him.

Inside the house, Qadesh spent most of the afternoon lounging on Nora's chartreuse velvet couch, her huge head lolling over one end while her tail dangled over the other.

Nora had kept up the eccentric theme of the party by serving latkes and sour cream instead of pizza. As the humans ate – Qadesh, we learned, was always prefed before outings – the trainer described life in a Toronto suburb with less restrictive rules about exotic pet ownership.

We learned that the trainer, his son and Qadesh shared a king-size bed. For some reason, his ex-wife hadn't embraced this lifestyle and had moved out.

I remember watching my dad fight not to roll his eyes, the same eyes, I'd noticed with interest, that had not begun watering despite his proximity to a feline with about 15 pounds of fur and dander.

One thing I learned that day was that my dad had been fibbing about his reasons for not wanting a cat.

The only time things got slightly tense was when Qadesh half-pinned Nora's Uncle Martin to the kitchen floor.

Martin's expression was similar to that of the shocked Dalmatian, but the trainer just patted the tiger's rump and she meandered back into the living room.

It's possible the tiger's laissez-faire attitude was the result of heavy drugging, or maybe she was just depressed by a lifetime of modelling for advertisers, art students and birthday parties.

After the tiger left, the girls ran downstairs to watch Bend it Like Beckham and the adults poured another glass of wine. It was almost as if we hadn't just been hobnobbing with one of the world's largest cats.

Nevertheless, in years to come, whenever people ask "What's the craziest birthday party you've ever been to?" I will always think of the day I ate latkes beside a Siberian tiger.

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