Baby tigers–four of them–are active new residents at the Oklahoma City Zoo. This article, reprinted with permission, shares the story of their birth and “toddler” stage. ~Amy
The Wonderful Thing About Tigers
Four frolicking balls of fur exploded onto the scene of CatForestthis fall. Tiger cubs, Leonidus, Leeloo, Lola and Lucy pounce, roll, stretch, and explore…providing visitors an action-packed experience.
But the scene was quite different when these four cubs entered the world. Calm and peaceful best describe their first days.
New Momma Tiger
“About ten days before we expected the mother, Suriya, to deliver, we moved her indoors to a special birthing stall,” said Jonathan Reding, Cat Forest/Lion Overlook Supervisor.
The birthing stall is in a quiet corridor away from the main flow of traffic. Keepers put burlap around the room so that Suriya would have complete privacy, except, that is, for a surveillance camera monitoring her every move.
The goal for this first-time mom was to allow her to rely on her natural birthing behaviors, without human aid, unless necessary.
Tigers have a track record of being difficult to breed. For three years, the keepers kept diligent records in an attempt to pair Suriya with the male, Raguna. Timing was crucial since the rare, week-long window of opportunity only comes once every three months.
As part of the Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP), the zoo had already determined a birth plan based on research and input from other professionals. Oklahoma City Zoo had another point in its favor—a staff with over five years experience at successfully breeding other cat species such as lions and snow leopards.
On the morning of July 9th, a pleasant sight greeted the cat keepers. Camera monitors showed Suriya interacting with two cubs. She exhibited good mothering skills: licking, cleaning, nursing. All was well, so the staff followed their plan to stay away.
What a surprise when a third cub arrived an hour later. And then a fourth another hour after that!
“It’s rare for tigers to have four cubs; most have two or three,” said Reding. “What’s even more rare is that all four survived.”
These four tigers are an incredible contribution to the tiger species. Only 250 are left in the wild, and 66 live in accredited zoos. Now, the zoo population is up to 71!
Fortunately, Suriya exhibited such good mothering skills that the keepers avoided all interactions with her and the cubs for over a week. Then, the noise of daily routine was added back in, and eventually the burlap was removed.
“Suriya has a strong preference for female keepers,” said Erin Holman, Cat Keeper. “I’m the only full-time female on the cat staff, so I started going back into the hallway to perform cleaning routines.”
After ten days, Holman offered Suriya food in a nearby stall, and the tiger followed her trained routine. She voluntarily shifted next door, allowing a gate to be closed between herself and her cubs.
“We had worried about that, because she does things on her own terms, but she shifted with no problem,” said Reding. “It shows her trust level with the staff.”
Into the Public Eye
Veterinarians were able to do a well-baby check and take the newborns’ first weights, which were between four and five pounds. Since the cubs continued to do well after several months, the staff began preparations for the tigers to go on exhibit for the public by early fall.
“First, we had to let it cool down outside,” said Reding. “We also needed to make sure the cubs were big enough to move safely in the yard without injuring themselves on logs or drop offs.”
The first few days in the outdoor yard, the cubs jumped at every odd noise or visitor calling to them. Now, the four-month-old cubs are immune to zoo traffic. They perch confidently on their favorite overlook, keeping an instinctive eye out for prey as they pounce, roll, stretch and explore.
Then, it’s time for a cat nap.
“It’s play, play, play, but they are still babies, so they need lots of sleep,” said Reding.
According to Holman, the cubs’ most active period is in the morning between 9:00 and 10:30. Each tiger has a unique stripe pattern, but to visitors, their personalities are the most obvious thing about them.
Leonidus, the only male, is very laid back and gentle. He takes after his father and is expected to be a very large male. Leeloo is Leonidus’ running buddy. She is feisty and plays hard. Lucy has her mother’s personality, cautious and defensive. Lola is cautious at first, but then becomes adventurous.
What is in the future for these tigers? The cubs will likely remain at the zoo for two years until the Tiger SSP decides where they should be dispersed. Since Raguno and Suriya’s genetics are well represented, Raguno will eventually leave to breed at another facility.
“For our staff, the tigers were our most anticipated birth in five years,” said Reding. “They are critically endangered, they are a key species for zoos, and everyone loves them.”
And that’s the wonderful thing about tigers.