Tiger cub stable, outlook bleak

CALGARY — A tiny Siberian tiger cub was in the zoo equivalent of neonatal intensive care Wednesday after its surprise birth 24 hours earlier

A Siberian tiger cub is fed at the Calgary Zoo. Staff at the zoo are working around the clock to care for the newborn cub.

A Siberian tiger cub is fed at the Calgary Zoo. Staff at the zoo are working around the clock to care for the newborn cub.

CALGARY — A tiny Siberian tiger cub was in the zoo equivalent of neonatal intensive care Wednesday after its surprise birth 24 hours earlier.

Staff at the Calgary Zoo were unaware that the cub’s mother, 10-year-old Katja, was pregnant. She actually gave birth to two cubs, but one died soon afterward.

Keepers were doing what they could to save the remaining animal, an unnamed female. They put its odds of survival at 50 per cent or less.

“She is stable,” said Sandie Black, head of veterinary services at the Calgary Zoo. “We’re working hard to move her from tube feeding to bottle feeding.

“It’s sort of round the clock right now, with feeding and monitoring and keeping her temperature up. She’s on antibiotics, so we’re hoping. It’s guarded but we’re very hopeful.”

Black said it’s not unheard of for tigers to get pregnant without their handlers knowing.

She said numerous attempts to breed Katja were made last January with a nine-year-old male tiger named Baikal from New York’s Bronx Zoo.

“If you think about the relative sizes, our female tiger weighs over 300 pounds — the cubs weigh less than two pounds each. So they are a very small entity in a very large body. Additionally these are Siberian tigers, (they have) a very thick fur coat,” Black said.

“She’s a little bit pendulous in the belly and actually there’s at least another half-dozen occasions where this has happened in zoos where they haven’t been aware of a pregnancy.”

Black believes the other cub died because Katja was an inexperienced mother.

“We believe she picked up and moved the cub inappropriately. This wasn’t an aggressive act at all — just an inexperienced mum. If you think about that image of a cat carrying a kitten around the shoulders — well, she just hasn’t got it quite right yet.”

Siberian tigers are considered endangered and the population continues to decline. Census estimates indicate there are fewer than 400 adult/sub-adult Siberian tigers left in the wild.

It is looking less likely that the surviving cub will be able to return to her mother and she may end up being hand fed, Black said.

“In this case it would have been our desire to put this cub back. She’s too fragile for that at the moment and that window of opportunity will close very quickly,” said Black.

“It’s likely we will hand rear her, but as soon as possible at weaning she would be reintroduced to the tigers.”