By Allison M. Heinrichs
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
Nuzzling into his keeper’s arms, Petya appeared content to sit calmly as he was presented publicly for the first time as one of the most valuable tiger cubs in the country.
His sister, Mara, would do no such thing.
Mara made a playful lunge for her brother’s ear and spent the rest of a 10-minute news conference struggling to escape her keeper’s grasp. It was the first chance to glimpse the rare Amur — Siberian — tiger cubs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in Highland Park.
“She’s got a lot of spunk,” said Kathy Suthard, the zoo’s lead tiger keeper.
There are about 400 Amur tigers in the wild and 190 in American zoos. The cubs’ birth Aug. 8 marked the first introduction of their mother’s bloodline to the captive tiger population.
Before their public debut, the 8-week-old cubs were given an exam to check their weight and temperature and take some blood samples. Mara weighs 14 pounds, 9 ounces and Petya, 14 pounds, 1 ounce. When they’re full grown, Mara should weigh about 250 pounds and Petya close to 400.
Both are healthy and have started eating meat in addition to their mother’s milk. They are putting on about 2 pounds a week.
The cubs’ sister died three weeks ago from birth defects. She had an enlarged heart and her stomach was half the normal size, said zoo President Barbara Baker.
Keepers recently named the cubs after consulting with a Russian language professor. Mara is named for her mother, Tomara. Petya means “rock.”
The cubs are able to see their father, Yorgi, from their enclosure, although they haven’t had physical contact with him. Yorgi “chuffs” — which is a type of tiger greeting — at the cubs, Suthard said.
The cubs are orange with white bellies and black stripes that make patterns unique to every tiger, like a fingerprint. Mara’s stripes make heart shapes above her eyes, which helps the keepers tell them apart. Their paws are about the size of an adult human’s palm.
The cubs will be put in the zoo’s tiger exhibit for public viewing as soon as their keepers are confident the cubs have enough coordination and dexterity. Because the exhibit has high cliff walls and a water-filled moat, the fearless cubs probably won’t be on display until Thanksgiving, when they’ll likely weigh about 30 pounds each, Baker said.
The cubs live with their mother in a small den attached to a larger indoor room that empties into an outdoor pen. They spend their days playing, sleeping and eating. Zoo visitors can watch them through a monitor near the tiger exhibit, which broadcasts footage taken by a camera mounted in the cubs’ den.
“They play all the time,” said Suthard. “They tumble, they have a lot of fun chewing their feet and playing with their mom’s tail.”
“And her ears and her feet,” added zoo keeper Diane Hagey. “They’re always going after their mom.”
Allison M. Heinrichs can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 380-5607.