Big things come in small packages but they all don’t stay that way for long. Just days before Thanksgiving, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens welcomed the first tiger cub born at the zoo in over 35 years. First time parents Dorcas (known as Lucy) and father Berani greeted the single cub in the early morning hours on Nov 19. The still unnamed female cub and mother are enjoying private time off exhibit to allow Lucy to bond with her baby. As they do in the wild, the new father will not interact with the cub. “In the wild, tigers are solitary. The male and female come together to breed but the male is usually long gone by the time the cub is born,” says the zoo’s Supervisor of Mammals Dan Dembiec. “They are normally not involved in the raising of the cub. The female has been absolutely fantastic. She only had one cub, which is not uncommon but it’s more common to have two or three cubs. And often the first time the mom has a singlet cub, it’s not unheard of for her to decide she doesn’t want to take care of it. But Lucy has been phenomenal and she decided right away that she would take care of it. She nursed it from day one.”
The new cub won’t be introduced to the public exhibit until she is fully vaccinated and strong enough to safely swim. Dembiec estimates the cub will make her official public debut at around three months. “Because our exhibits have water features, we want to make sure she is strong enough to handle that sort of thing. They do instinctively develop that ability once they’re strong enough but it does take them a couple months to do that,” he says. “Our exhibit also has the trail system which is a safer environment and is open to the public view.” Until then guests can try to catch a glimpse of the cub on the Tiger Cam located in the Land of the Tiger exhibit building. Since her birth, zoo staff has added a second camera and change the angles to optimize the view of the new mother and baby. “The cub has decided to start running around a lot so you’ll probably see more activity,” Dembiec says. “She’s absolutely adorable so they’ll be even better opportunities to see it.” Dembiec says the zoo will likely hold a contest for the public to name the new cub as they have done with previous arrivals. “We do not have an official name for her. Usually we have either a public contest or a fundraiser or something like that to name it,” he says.
Zoo staffers it’s common to be unable to determine the cub’s gender right away. The team wanted to ensure Lucy’s maternal instincts and give her time to bond with her new baby without any outside interference. “We don’t necessarily have hands on the baby right away. If mom’s taking good care of it, we pretty much just let her take care of it. We have video cameras and we have a system set up looking at her and mom so we don’t put our hands on it for a while after it’s born,” says Dembiec. “Normally with big cats like this, the moms are very protective. And this one was protective, although she is actually being very good about it. She was able to let us separate her after about a week. At two weeks, we did an official vet check.” At its first wellness check, zoo vets confirmed the health and gender of the cub. She measured nearly 19 inches long and weighed in at approximately 7.5 pounds.
The new cub is among 80 Sumatran tigers living in zoo environments. There are less than 400 Sumatran tigers living in the wild. “This is the first tiger cub that we’ve had in 35 years and the first time we’ve bred a Sumatran tiger, a special sub-species. It’s great with our new exhibit. We have a heavy focus on conservation. We do a lot of support for the conservation of tigers in Indonesia so this really reinforces what we do,” says Dembiec. “The Sumatran tigers are very close to extinction so this is a wonderful thing for our zoo for so many different reasons.”
Dembiec says the birth was a fully planned breeding. They worked cooperatively with other AZA-Accredited (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoos throughout the country to develop a Species Survival Plan. “We all work together to create a healthy population to pair up those that are genetically compatible, meaning they are not related,” he says. “It was a planned breeding to the day. Normally, it’s give or take a few days of when the cub is born but we knew exactly when it was going to be born.” When the new tiger exhibit was in development, the leader of the Sumatran tiger program was instrumental in identifying Lucy and Berani as compatible future breeding. The average gestation period for a Sumatran tiger is 104 days. Lucy gave birth right at 103 days gestation. “We don’t know the exact date of conception but we know that they bred straight for six days and the conception probably happened after day three or day four,” says Dembiec.
At just four years old, Lucy’s breeding instincts were on target for her first time breeding. Berani “didn’t have the best technique,” Dembiec says, and required a little direction from his mate. “We actually introduced them a number of times while she was in heat and he was well off the mark. So he needed to work on his technique,” he says. “After something like the sixth time, we decided not to put them together for a couple of cycles and put them back together, and she showed him what to do. When we put them back together after taking a little break, we saw successful breeding. It took a little bit of strategy but it happened naturally.”
Lucy is not expected to go into heat again for at least a year but she is likely to breed again. In the wild, cubs stay with mom anywhere between two to four years. Dembiec says the tiger team will attempt to simulate that timeline but because of the genetic value of the cub, it’s likely that she will be recommended to breed at a different location with another male. “It all depends on how the population connects and changes. We have such a good relationship with the mother so she’ll probably end up staying here. Genetically, they’re not much different but our breeding pair like each other and this was a very calm breeding experience,” says Dembiec. “Sometimes the male can be very of aggressive and mean but this one has been fantastic. There’s not a good reason to break them up.”
Be sure to make a trip to the zoo to check out the Tiger Cam to watch the cub romp around as she gets to know her environment.