It’s a fact of life that no one likes rejection. But can you imagine your own mother turning her back on you? Well, that was the reality for a little tiger cub named Zoya. Yes, following a series of tragic events, Zoya’s mom refused to nurse her. And so zookeepers had to devise a special plan to help get the abandoned cub adopted.
Zoya the Siberian tiger cub had a tough start to life. In July 2017 she was born at Philadelphia Zoo on what became a very sad day. You see, Zoya came into this world with four other siblings, but by an unfortunate twist of fate she turned out to be the litter’s sole survivor.
The cubs had each died under different circumstances. Two never had a chance at life as they were stillborn, while another was injured by their mother and perished from the accident. The fourth cub, meanwhile, died as a result of health complications from a gastrointestinal problem.
The fifth cub, of course, was called Zoya. Why? Well, Siberian tigers, also known as Amur tigers, hail primarily from Russia. Zoya was therefore given a Russian name, and the meaning behind it is somewhat fitting. As the only survivor of the litter, her name means “life.”
Sadly, though, Zoya’s ten-year-old mother, Koosaka, had no apparent maternal instincts, something that’s quite common among first-time tiger moms. As a result, Koosaka abandoned her motherly duties and refused to tend to her only surviving cub. Instead, little Zoya was left in the hands of zookeepers, who bottle-fed the new arrival.
As a Siberian tiger, Zoya was an endangered animal. For the good of her species’ future, then, she needed to flourish. However, without siblings or a mother, her chances looked grim. Consequently, the zoo knew it needed a plan to ensure that Zoya didn’t die.
As it happens, the ideal solution was a pretty straightforward one. “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 the zoo’s COO, Dr. Andrew Baker.
Amazingly, such an opportunity soon presented itself. The day before Zoya was born, a six-year-old Sumatran tiger called Lola had delivered three healthy male cubs at Oklahoma City Zoo. Fortune was, it seemed, staring zookeepers in Philadelphia in the face; surely this was a chance to give Zoya a new family.
So zoo workers made the necessary arrangements and sent the little cub on her way. It’s a fair old drive from Philadelphia to Oklahoma – more than 1,400 miles, in fact – but if the adoption plan worked, Zoya would have an excellent chance of growing to be a strong and healthy Siberian tiger.
Once Zoya arrived after her 20-hour trip, the tricky part of the plan began. The first step? Zookeepers at Oklahoma City Zoo had to fool their Sumatran tiger mom into thinking that Zoya was one of her own. Clearly, this kind of tiger adoption ruse was not going to be an easy one to pull off. In fact, it has only ever been successful once before – and that time the tigers were of the same subspecies.
But nothing ventured, nothing gained. And despite being different types of tigers, according to Eddie Witte from Oklahoma City Zoo, the cubs would have looked the same. While it wouldn’t be the easiest of tasks, then, the adoption was certainly possible.
The scene was thus set. The three brother cubs remained in the tiger den being nursed by their mother, Lola. Meanwhile, their nine-year-old father, Kami, was out in the zoo’s Cat Forest, perhaps being admired by visitors to the attraction. All staff could do now was sit tight.
As it happens, the game-plan was quite simple. The first part involved waiting until Lola went to eat, leaving her three cubs alone. That’s when staff put part two into action: placing Zoya into the enclosure and rubbing her in hay and urine from the floor of the den. The idea was that she would have the same scent as Lola’s Sumatran cubs.
Subsequently, the mom returned to her babies to find the extra addition. Video footage caught the moment she entered and looked curiously at her litter, perhaps confused by the new arrival. Staff were on tenterhooks. “Everybody just had their breath held,” said Witte.
So zookeepers would have likely let out a sigh of relief when Lola seemed to accept Zoya. The video shows the mom standing over the newcomer before proceeding to lick the little cub. Later, Lola is shown nursing all four cubs in the corner of their den.
In the moving footage, the young cubs are seen huddled together while feeding. The mother tiger also appears to be gentle and patient with all four of them. Indeed, a casual observer would likely never have guessed that Zoya was a different subspecies to the others.
Alongside her new brothers, Zoya remained indoors for several weeks. During this time, the cubs were able to bond with their mother. The foursome naturally continued to grow until they were ready to roam further and discover the great outdoors.
Many said staff at each zoo should be congratulated for prioritizing Zoya’s welfare. Because, as Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science at Oklahoma City Zoo, said, “Every cub is important for the species’ survival.”
But one burning question still remained: was Zoya finally with a mom who wouldn’t reject her? Well, the signs were certainly looking that way when Witte shared some promising news. Lola was indeed an “incredible mom,” he said.
There are wider arguments concerning animal welfare, but here it seems that two zoos contributed to the conservation of a species. And with fewer than 500 Siberian tigers thought to be living in the wild, the two zoos’ efforts in finding Zoya a new home should arguably be applauded. Hopefully, she and her brothers can continue to flourish there.