Craig Saffoe, curator of Great Cats at the National Zoo, described the matching of the two young cubs as similar to seeing a shooting star.
“It is a one-in-a-million shot that it would have worked out this way,” Saffoe said. He said he expects the two cubs to learn to “rough and tumble” together and learn how to approach other tigers.
On Monday, the 2-month-old, roughly-15-pound tiger cub left the National Zoo in Washington. He was flown in the cabin of a Southwest Airlines nonstop flight out of Baltimore-Washington airport by zookeepers to join his new, surrogate brother cub at the San Diego Zoo.
The San Diego cub was brought to the zoo there after it was confiscated earlier in the summer at the Mexican border.
The D.C. tiger cub was born July 11. At first, his 8-year-old mother Damai cared for him and allowed him to nurse.
But that changed.
When the cub was 19 days old, zookeepers noticed he was losing weight when he should have been steadily gaining. And Damai started to show she may be in pain or have troubles in nursing.
Saffoe said, at times, Damai would groom her cub and play as normal. But when he moved to her belly, she would “vocalize aggressively.” At times, she would roll over or push him away with her hind feet. This behavior gradually became more frequent.
Even after a hands-on exam of the cub and a visual exam of Damai, zookeepers couldn’t figure out an “obvious medical cause” for the mother tiger’s behavior. She was treated at one point with antibiotics, and things seemed normal until she began to act out aggressively again toward her cub.
Damai’s nursing of the cub was never consistent. So zookeepers started to bottle feed formula to the cub.
“It was really a roller coaster,” Saffoe said of the mother-cub relationship over the last few months.
“She was a great mom caring for him, but something happened,” he said.
Zookeepers aren’t exactly sure what caused Damai to shun her cub. Damai successfully raised two other cubs in 2013. Experts think it could possibly be mastitis or a lack of milk. By the end of August, zookeepers believed the mother tiger was in an estrus cycle, and her milk supply had likely dried up.
Damai then had a change in appetite and started to respond vocally to “male tigers’ solicitations,” zookeepers said. But when her cub wanted to socialize with her, she started to growl, bark and bite at her cub.
The D.C. cub never went on display to visitors. And after an incident in early September when Damai sat on a bench and growled when the cub came near, zookeepers decided to separate the two.
“That’s not how a mom should treat her offspring,” said Saffoe.
Zookeepers took more care of the cub, concerned it would lose too much weight, and eventually increased his feedings.
Then coincidence — or maybe luck — struck.
Great cat experts and zookeepers at the National Zoo had been emailing with colleagues at the San Diego Zoo on other feline-related matters and mentioned the troubles with their tiger cub. They found out that the San Diego Zoo had recently received a tiger cub that had been confiscated in August at the Mexican border.
An 18-year-old man had the tiger cub on the front passenger-side floor of a 2017 Chevy Camaro when authorities stopped him. He told officials he planned to keep it as a pet. Tigers can grow to weigh 400 to 500 pounds.
Keepers of the California cub told the San Diego Union-Tribune he was active and chewing on toys like a puppy. His favorite stuffed animal is a giraffe that he reportedly climbs on and cuddles with. The San Diego cub was likely already raised by humans, officials said, as it is comfortable being fed with a bottle and had an easy transition to going on display at the zoo.
The San Diego Zoo estimates that its cub was born within a week of the one at the National Zoo — based on weight, size, actions, etc.
Zookeepers hope putting the two tiger cubs together will benefit both, as they will grow up and learn how to be tigers together rather than being raised more by humans. Because of legal restrictions, the National Zoo said, the San Diego cub is not allowed to leave California.
“It’s incredible timing,” Saffoe said. “They’ll grow up as siblings and learn to be tigers together.” Once tigers reach about 1 to 1½ years old they become solitary animals.
Sumatran tigers are critically endangered animals. There are roughly 65 Sumatran tigers in zoos throughout North America. And in the wild, there are only about 200 to 400 that live on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
The D.C. tiger will some day become part of a breeding program to try to save the Sumatran tiger species. The San Diego tiger, because of its unknown genetic history, cannot be bred and will at some point be sent to a sanctuary.
“Our first choice would be to have mom take care of this guy,” Saffoe said of the D.C. tiger cub. But there’s “no normal at a zoo.”
So, he said, “this is the next best scenario.”
The D.C. tiger’s journey to San Diego can be followed on Instagram under the hashtag #TigerStory.