Lowry Zoo’s Tiger Cubs Draw Ooohs, Ahhhs, Criticism

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Lowry Zoo’s Tiger Cubs Draw Ooohs, Ahhhs, Criticism

For information on white tigers please visit: http://bigcatrescue.org/cats/wild/white_tigers.htm

By KEITH MORELLI The Tampa Tribune

Published: November 25, 2008

Updated: 04:54 pm

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TAMPA – Oblivious to the “oohs” and “ahhs” echoing from the overhead gallery of spectators, two 7-week-old white tiger cubs emerged from their den this morning, their official debut to an adoring public.

The as-yet unnamed cubs, with white and chocolate-brown stripes, pink noses and ice-blue eyes, were born at the Lowry Park Zoo in October to Nikki and Yala, two grown white tigers who are “an established couple.”

Though rambunctious and adorable, the cubs didn’t garner much favor among some conservationists, who maintain that the breeding of captive white tigers is leading to inbreeding and thus a weakened species.

They charge that zoos breed white tigers indiscriminately to draw larger crowds.

“The white tiger controversy among zoos is a small part ethics and a large part economics,” said Minnesota Zoo Conservation Director Ron Tilson in an article he wrote for the Save the Tiger Fund Web site. Tilson also oversees the Tiger Species Survival Plan, which manages captive tigers across North America, including monitoring breeding practices.

Tilson, in a telephone interview this afternoon from his office in Minnesota, said no one should breed white tigers.

“There are zoos that comply with us,” he said, “and there are other zoos that don’t work with us. They do what they care to do in terms of the pursuit of their own self-interests. Lowry Park is one of those zoos.”

The Tampa zoo has been on Tilson’s radar for years. “They have been breeding a color variant of Bengal tigers, and they are highly inbred, so he [Lowry Park Zoo Director Lex Salisbury] can have white tigers they can show everyone.

“They have no conservation value,” Tilson said. “They are not going to be returned to the wild, and they can’t be bred with other white tigers under the Species Survival Plan.”

Zoos that breed rare animals typically use the Species Survival Plan, guidelines established by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to ensure breeding programs produce healthy populations in captivity. Tilson developed the Tiger Species Survivor Plan.

‘All The Genetics Are Good’

Chris Massaro, assistant curator for Lowry Park’s Asian Gardens, defended the breeding program.

“We are an accredited zoo,” he said. “Our breeding programs are taken seriously. We make sure all the genetics are good.”

White tigers originate from Bengal tigers and are not albinos. Wild white tigers are rare because their white coats provide poor camouflage and are easily spotted by predators.

Almost all white tigers now exist in captivity. No white tigers have been spotted in the wild since the 1950s, according to Tilson’s article. Conservationists figure that there is one white tiger born for every 10,000 normal ones.

The Save the Tiger Fund, which is part of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, frowns on breeding white tigers but sees the benefit in displaying them.

Garrett Barnicoat, spokesman for the conservation organization, said that while inbreeding has been an issue, there is a bigger picture.

“We realize captive white tigers are often the first point of contact for people who want to learn more about the species,” he said. “People often, once they learn about the threats to an endangered species in the wild, are inspired to help preserve their habitat.”

Wildlife experts say all white tigers in captivity originated with one white tiger captured in India in the 1950s. That tiger was bred with its daughter, and from there the progeny were bred with one another to produce the strand that became popular in zoos and wildlife parks.

‘White Tigers Are Cool’

The Lowry Park Zoo cubs, both robust and frisky in the cool and damp morning air, were venturing out today for short periods to explore the exhibit, lined on three sides with rock walls and on the fourth by a moat. They came out of the den behind their mother, who sauntered out first to sniff around and make sure it was safe.

Mothers are critical. The cubs depend on them for everything for the first three months and nurse for even longer.

Since being born Oct. 4, the cubs have more than quadrupled in size, growing from about 3 pounds to a hefty 14 pounds.

The male and female cubs are the second litter for Nikki at the zoo and might be her last, Massaro said.

“She’s getting up there,” he said. Both adult tigers are about 10 years old.

The births weren’t planned, he said, but weren’t unexpected either.

“We just let nature take its course,” he said. “We didn’t do anything to prevent it.”

The gestation period for tigers is three to four months. The average litter is two or three cubs, weighing about 2 pounds at birth.

The cubs likely will stay at the zoo for a couple of years and then will be placed at other zoos, he said. By doing that, they can breed in lines not associated with their own, he said.

“So far they are developing well, right on schedule,” he said. “They are very strong. They are eating plenty.”

What was exciting for him today was the reaction of the zoo visitors, who lined the walkway that ran past the exhibit. Adults and children, including a third-grade class from Sand Pine Elementary School, were rapt when the tigers first emerged from the den.

We had no idea the tiger cubs would be out today, said Lizette Rogers, a third-grade teacher who had brought 108 students with her. “We had planned this trip two months ago.”

“White tigers are cool,” said 9-year-old Drew Maldonado.



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