Zoya, an Amur tiger cub, traveled from Philadelphia to Oklahoma City to join her new family

By Kate Hogan
July 26, 2017 09:00 AM
Credit: Courtesy the Oklahoma City Zoo

Zoya has had quite the incredible two weeks.

Born on Monday, July 10, at the Philadelphia Zoo, the female Amur tiger cub was the only survivor in her litter of five; two of her siblings were stillborn, one died from an injury sustained by its mother and another suffered from a critical gastrointestinal issue.

Despite being a tiny miracle, Zoya was rejected by her mother, 10-year-old Koosaka — a behavior somewhat typical of first-time tiger moms. So the Philadelphia Zoo’s animal care team jumped in to raise her, bottle feeding her and keeping watch around the clock. However, something was missing — namely, peers.

“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,” Dr. Andy Baker, COO of the Philadelphia Zoo, said in a release.

That’s where the Oklahoma City Zoo came in. The zoo had welcomed a three-cub litter of male Sumatran tigers around the time of Zoya’s birth, and offered to try to integrate her with the litter. Though they are different subspecies, they look almost identical as cubs, according to Eddie Witte, curator of carnivores at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Credit: Courtesy Philadelphia Zoo

Last week, the Philadelphia Zoo staff made the 20-hour drive to Oklahoma, and got to work covering Zoya with the scent of the other cubs by rubbing her in hay from the den, tiger cub urine and even against the other cubs, Witte said. When mom Lola left her little ones for a moment, zookeepers swept in and added Zoya to the brood. Then staff watched via video monitors as Lola returned to the den, stood over Zoya — and promptly began licking her. Success!

Another sign of progress: bottle-fed Zoya successfully nursed from her new foster mom several times throughout the weekend, and zoo staff was able to confirm she was steadily gaining weight. So the Philadelphia Zoo staff left their little girl in Oklahoma City, confident that the cross-fostering process was working.

According to the zoos, cross-fostering among tigers is rare, with only a few cases having ever been attempted and documented. But with less than 500 Amur tigers left in the wild, “every cub is important for the species’ survival,” said Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

For now, the cubs will continue to bond with Lola in private, and in six to eight weeks, will be big enough start exploring their outdoor habitat, where visitors can see them.

By the way, the fateful meaning of Zoya’s Russian name? “Life.”