By Sonia Krishnan, email@example.com
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
The cubs tumbled around the nursery of Issaquah’s Cougar Mountain Zoo, climbing into boxes and onto chairs, their oversize paws an indication of the growth to come.
The 8- and 11-week-old Bengal tigers — one a Royal White, the other a Golden — nuzzled their caretakers on a recent sunny morning, unaware of the crowd waiting to see them. Named Taj and Almos, the tigers are the only Bengal cubs in the state. Both arrived in Issaquah four weeks ago from a Florida tiger preserve to serve as “ambassadors” of the dwindling species, zoo officials say.
The younger, Almos, is 12 pounds; the older weighs in at 22. Both will grow to be 500 pounds.
“We want to educate people about the threat to this animal,” said Robyn Barfoot, the zoo’s general curator. “The tiger is such a magnificent creature. They’re meant to talk to your heart. It would be such a shame if in 10 years we don’t have any left. But that’s where we’re headed.”
Tigers once roamed through Russia, the Himalaya Mountains and across the Indian subcontinent. But poaching and habitat destruction have driven the tiger population to record lows, researchers say. The animals are hunted for their colorful skins, and their body parts are prized in the lucrative Chinese medicine market.
At one time, eight subspecies of tigers existed. But three died out during the 20th century, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Now researchers estimate 5,000 tigers remain in the wild.
The Golden tiger, the result of a genetic quirk, is rarer still, Barfoot said.
The Cougar Mountain Zoo received Taj, the Golden, and Almos, the Royal White, 35 years after the zoo’s master plan was unveiled. Saving endangered animals through education was part of this vision, Barfoot said.
The tigers came from different mothers at an undisclosed Florida preserve. Barfoot declined to say how much the zoo paid for the cubs.
She and her colleagues say they anxiously awaited the births.
Tiger gestation lasts about 100 days, and females give birth to litters of two to six cubs. In the wild, a tigress is the sole parent. She nurses her babies, teaches them how to hunt, and after two or three years, they are ready to set out on their own, according to the National Geographic Web site on endangered animals.
Almos’ mother, having given birth for the first time, didn’t nurse him when he was born, said Marcie McCaffray, administrator of the Cougar Mountain Zoo.
“It can happen with a first-time mom,” McCaffray said. “She doesn’t know what to do.”
Now, McCaffray and Barfoot have taken on the role as the cubs’ mothers. They spent a week with them in Florida before flying back with the tigers to Seattle.
At the zoo, they spend hours with the cubs, playing with them and feeding them four times a day. The tigers are bottle-fed a special formula, but once they get older, they will switch to an all-carnivore diet.
Once they are between 4 and 6 months old, the cubs will move to a 1-acre habitat with a pool, Barfoot said. It’s designed to give them space to roam and swim — one of their favorite activities.
Although they will be trained to stand on weighing scales and sit for health checkups, the goal is to keep the tigers’ instincts wild, Barfoot said.
. They may have bonded with her and McCaffray. But they are still tigers. The women rolled up their shirt sleeves to show scratches and bruises they’ve received in the past weeks.
“They are adorable and we love them,” Barfoot said. “But they are not pets.”
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org