A major travel website is asking its readers to vote for this year's cutest zoo baby, and Tampa Bay has a local contestant in the running.
The good news is that Kasi the young cheetah at Busch Gardens is a finalist in the BudgetTravel.com poll. The less-encouraging news is that after appearing to be a runaway for the title in early voting, he's now locked in a battle for online votes with Caspian the Eurasian eagle owl from the Cincinnati Zoo.
Kasi, along with his best friend Mtani, a Labrador puppy, has been making news since he arrived at Busch Gardens earlier this year. He came from Jacksonville after his mother could no longer take care of him. Now he and Mtani are cute fixtures in the Cheetah Run habitat that's part of Busch Gardens' new Cheetah Hunt roller coaster experience.
Caspian, it would seem, is getting a boost from the Cincinnati media, who have aired or written several stories about the wide-eyed raptor. She and Kasi are neck-and- neck in voting, with each at 42 percent as of late Monday afternoon. The third finalist is Aurora the Bornean orangutan from the Houston Zoo at 16 percent.
Could Caspian also be getting a sympathy vote? Her cuteness factor would seem to pale in comparison with Kasi's or Aurora's, based on photos on the BudgetTravel.com site. Even the Cincinnati Enquirer in its story called the owl "goofy-looking" and its competition "adorable."
Busch Gardens, sensing a momentum shift in the voting, sent out a collection of new photos of Kasi, some including Mtani, last week in an attempt to drum up support.
The theme park is also posting updates on its Facebook page asking its 100,000 fans to vote for Kasi. (The effort may be working; Kasi had been at 33 percent before the push and has pulled even in the poll since the alert went out.)
And if you need one more incentive to vote, maybe this passage from the Enquirer story will help: "(Cincinnati) Zoo director Thane Maynard says she'll grow up to be one of the biggest owls in the world who can gobble up a wide range of animals, which is arguably not very cute behavior at all."