On a fall day at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in Pennsylvania, three cubs were born to Toma, an Amur tiger. Toma was an experienced mother who had two previous litters, and throughout the first month, the cubs grew rapidly and were progressing normally.
Toma was taking excellent care of them. Amur tigers, which are also called Siberian tigers, are critically endangered, so the veterinarians and keepers were monitoring the cubs’ progress carefully via hidden low-light cameras. When the cubs were six weeks old, the keepers noticed that the cub with heart-shaped markings above her eyes was not crawling as well as her brother and sister.
Toma had started to pay less attention to the little cub, too. The veterinary staff decided to intervene and take the cub for evaluation. They found that she was underweight and weak. She was treated with antibiotics and fluids and returned to her family the same day so that she could keep drinking milk from her mother. Unfortunately, the next day her condition worsened and she was taken to the Zoo’s veterinary hospital for intensive care. This was a decision that was not taken lightly. Separating the cub from her mother and siblings might mean that she could never return to her family, as they might not recognize her.
However, without veterinary treatment the cub would have died, so the team decided they had to take the risk. The veterinarian and technicians gave the cub fluids and ran blood tests to determine what was making her so ill. They also performed a physical exam to look for any external abnormalities and they used X-rays and an MRI to look inside her. That’s when they found that the little cub had an abscess — an infection — at the base of her skull. She would have died without treatment, but the good news was that the doctors knew what to do to cure her. The little cub was given more antibiotics and she started to get stronger.
Eventually she graduated to a meat diet. Initially, she was reluctant to eat, so the veterinary staff would open her mouth, place a small meatball on her tongue, and rub her throat to get her to swallow. Over time she began to eat her meat on her own and became strong enough to walk around the hospital stall. She started to recognize her toys and respond to voices and movements. The medications were working and the infection in her neck was going away!
The goal was always to reunite the cub with her mother and siblings, so the staff made sure not to overexpose her to human visitors. They didn’t want her to become too comfortable with humans because she needed to go back to living with tigers. As she became more mobile the keepers would purposely “play rough” with her to simulate what her mother, brother, and sister would do.
After six weeks of intensive and devoted care the little cub was off all medications and able to eat on her own without any coaxing from staff. She had been inside during her treatment, so now it was time to take her outdoors so she could get ready for…
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