By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden has announced it is the new home of a rare female Amur tiger cub born at Philadelphia Zoo named Zoya, meaning “life” in Russian.
The OKC Zoo staff, working closely with the Philadelphia Zoo team, has integrated the cub with a litter of three Sumatran tiger cubs born in Oklahoma City two weeks ago.
Zoya, born on Monday July 10, is the first offspring of 10-year-old mother Koosaka and 9-year-old male Grom. Koosaka gave birth to five cubs, a large litter for tigers, unfortunately two were stillborn, a third was accidentally fatally injured by Koosaka and a fourth developed a critical gastro intestinal issue that proved fatal.
Due to Koosaka’s lack of maternal behavior, which is not uncommon among first-time mother tigers who sometimes neglect or reject cubs, Zoya was not being nurtured by her mom.
The Philadelphia Zoo’s animal care team quickly stepped in and bottle-fed and continuously cared for the cub which thrived, gaining weight from about 2 pounds at birth to almost 4 pounds at 10 days old.
However, the Philadelphia Zoo’s animal care team had concerns about hand-rearing a single cub without social opportunities with either a mother or littermates.
“With this single cub, we knew that the best scenario for her was to find an opportunity for her to grow up with other tigers,” said Dr. Andy Baker, Philadelphia Zoo’s Chief Operating Officer.
With the new litter arriving at the OKC Zoo, members involved in the Tiger Species Survival Plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and the Oklahoma City Zoo staff offered to try to integrate the Philadelphia Zoo cub with their litter.
The Oklahoma City Zoo’s litter of three Sumatran tiger cubs born just one day before the Philadelphia Zoo litter, were all doing well under the care of six-year-old Loa.
After consultation between Philadelphia Zoo, the Oklahoma City Zoo and with other AZA colleagues, the teams decided the best option for the cub to grow up in a good social environment was for the Oklahoma City Zoo to attempt to cross-foster Zoya with Lola and her cubs.
Cross-fostering is the process of removing offspring from one mother and transferring them to another lactating mother with offspring of the same approximate age.
“Cross-fostering in tigers is unusual, but with less than 500 Amur tigers in the wild, every cub is important for the species’ survival,” said Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science, Oklahoma City Zoo.
In 2011, the Oklahoma City Zoo successfully cross-fostered a litter of endangered African painted dogs with a golden retriever who had recently given birth. Cross-fostering among tigers is rare with only a few cases having ever been attempted and documented.
After a 20-hour non-stop drive from Philadelphia, the team of four Philadelphia Zoo caretakers arrived at the Oklahoma City Zoo with Zoya. The Oklahoma City Zoo veterinary team immediately examined Zoya while conferring with the Philadelphia team regarding the cub’s introduction into the Sumatran tiger litter.
“Though Sumatran and Amur or Siberian tigers are different subspecies, they look almost identical as cubs,” said Eddie Witte, curator of carnivores at the Oklahoma City Zoo. “Our first step in cross-fostering Zoya is to add her into our litter of three cubs and cover her with the scent of the other cubs by rubbing her with hay from the den, tiger cub urine and even the other cubs. By doing this, we hope Lola will identify Zoya as one of her own.”
While Lola temporarily left her cubs for a feeding, the Oklahoma City Zoo animal care team weighed Zoya and the other cubs and confirmed that all three Sumatran cubs were male.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia and Oklahoma City Zoo animal teams gathered in the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital’s conference room to watch live video from the tiger’s habitat broadcast. Everyone anxiously watched as Lola returned to her cubs and stood over the new cub Zoya. Within seconds, Lola accepted Zoya and began to lick and nuzzle her to the caretaker’s relief.
After more than a week of being bottle fed by Philadelphia Zoo’s animal team, Zoya would need to learn to nurse from a tiger for the first time. Both Zoo teams established round the clock monitoring of Lola and the cubs to confirm nursing behavior. After a brief nursing session on Friday night, members of both teams were ecstatic to witness long nursing sessions throughout the weekend.
“We are very happy that Zoya has integrated well with her new adoptive family,” said Donna Evernham, curator of carnivores and ungulates, Philadelphia Zoo. “She has made an incredible journey in her first two weeks of life and our Philadelphia Zoo team is thrilled to partner with the Oklahoma City Zoo to ensure Zoya’s well-being. With fewer than 500 Amur tigers left in the wild Zoya’s birth is significant to the entire population.”
With Zoya having established a steady nursing pattern with Lola, the Philadelphia Zoo team returned home early Monday morning.
“We are privileged to assist Philadelphia Zoo with this unique situation and understand how crucial this cross-fostering scenario is for Zoya’s survival and long-term well-being,” said Barry Downer, deputy director/COO, Oklahoma City Zoo “This is an excellent example of how AZA-accredited zoos collaborate to provide exceptional care and long-term welfare to critically endangered animals. We continue to be cautiously optimistic that Zoya will continue to be integrated into our litter of Sumatran cubs and continue nursing with Lola,” says Downer.
Members from both Zoos will continue to monitor progress of the cubs and share updates as they are available. In six to eight weeks, the cubs will be big enough to begin exploring their outdoor habitat and may step outside for visiting guests to see.
Both Amur tigers and Sumatran tigers are endangered in the wild. Fewer than 500 Sumatran tigers may survive on that Indonesian island. Amur tigers, also called Siberian tigers, are found in far eastern Russia, with a few surviving in northeastern China. Sustained conservation efforts have resulted in recovery from near extinction for the Amur tiger. Fewer than 50 were thought to survive in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but the population has grown to almost 500 today.
Although Amur tigers have increased in the wild, there are thought to be fewer than 4000 total tigers surviving in southeast Asia, Sumatra, China and Russia. The primary threat to tigers is poaching for their skins, bones and other body parts that are used in traditional Asian medicine. Habitat loss and depletion of prey species is also a threat in many areas.
In 2016, the Oklahoma City Zoo began a partnership with Rainforest Trust, a conservation organization whose mission is to work with local partners to purchase and protect threatened tropical forests. Using funds donated by guests through the Zoo’s grassroots program, Round Up for Conservation, Rainforest Trust purchased 13,000 acres of rainforest in central Sumatra, an area five times the size of Oklahoma City’s Lake Hefner.
Now designated as a protected area, this lowland forest is safe from conversion to palm oil plantations and logging. Patrolled to prevent illegal activities such as poaching, the area is home to some of the Zoo’s most popular and endangered species including Asian elephants, Sumatran orangutans and Sumatran tigers.
The OKC Zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information or to purchase tickets online, visit www.okczoo.org.