Emotional Humans, Emotional Cats.
Emotion is running high across the world regarding my
statement that tigress Julie is unlikely to raise her five
cubs to maturity, and if one or two perish along the way
then I will not interfere
When Savannah the lioness visited Julie in her den soon
after the birth of the cubs, the greeting was extra-ordinary
to say the least (Savannah is the lioness that was
introduced into Julies first litter when she was 5 days old.
This was a genetic diversity experiment which was extremely
successful. See newsletter No2).
Savannah, now 3 years old, enters the den, greets, rolls and
grooms Julie for more than 2 hours.
I could relate to the greeting because a lioness called "Shingalana"
had given me a similar greeting on the Luwangwe River in
Zambia after I returned from an absence of 3 weeks due to a
severe bout of Malaria.
The problem with Savannahs' greeting is that having never
produced cubs of her own, she is totally oblivious of the
fragility and vulnerability of the cubs. If Savannah
(roughly 160kg) rolls on top of a 1kg tiger cub, the cub
will be killed instantly.
I watched in horror as several times the cubs were almost
crushed by the ecstatic Savannah. Further observation
revealed a degree of jealousy as Savannah roughly cuffed and
rolled the cubs over with her paws. Whereas Savannah was
overjoyed to see Julie, the cubs were regarded as
competition as instinctively Savannah knew that the cubs
would now replace her for Julies attention, and affection.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. As Julie rolled
on her side to give the cubs better access to the teats,
Savannah tried to suckle from Julie too. In one of the most
extraordinary shots I have ever rolled, a 3-year-old lioness
lies next to 5 tiny, newborn tiger cubs and attempts to
Fearful of damage to a cub, I was forced to remove Savannah
into a holding boma.
I returned to the den and my worst fears were realized. The
white cub lay separate from the 4 normal cubs. Its head was
thrown back and it was gasping for air. It appeared unable
to crawl. It seemed traumatized. I picked up the cub to
examine it and noticed it had diarrhea. Could Savannah have
crushed the tiny cub and damaged its internal organs?
Shock, and dismay overcame me as I realized that the chance
of Julie raising a wild white tiger had been snuffed out in
the first few days. I left the cub in the den, and returned
That night I phoned many vet friends of mine and the
consensus of all of them was that the cub had suffered a
severe blow to the body and had probably been sat on by
At 3am in the morning my "non-interference" went out of the
window and I woke Jade de Klerk to help me pull the cub and
rush it to the vet in an attempt to save its life.
Using lights we arrived at the den. The white cub had not
moved. My heart sank. Julie had her paws over the cub, and
it appeared to be dead. I waited for 5 minutes, but there
was no sign of life in the white cub. Completely gutted, I
prepared to leave the den.
Suddenly, the white cubs head pushed through Julies paws,
crawling over her leg trying to find a teat, then it began
to suckle. Amazement is an understatement, the cub was alive
and feeding! We left the den elated.
Several days later Julie moved the cubs from the birth den
into a new den in a river bed. The new den had thick reeds
and access was difficult.
On the third day I arrived to find the white cub alone in
the den. Julie and the 4 normal cubs were gone. I was
unconcerned, Julie was obviously in the process of moving
the cubs to a new den site and she would return to the den
shortly to fetch the last cub. Julie, however, never
returned to the den. The longer I waited, the more I became
convinced that she had forgotten the last cub.
I have seen it many times before with leopards, they will
move their cubs to a new den and then go back to the
original den and call in case there is another cub. In other
words they cant count, they simply act on instinct.
I became convinced that Julie, having carried four cubs in
her mouth, had forgotten one, and once again it was the
white cub. My dilemma was; do I leave the cub or do I pick
up the cub, try to find Julies new den and return the cub to
Another scenario was possible, did Julie deliberately leave
it behind knowing that she couldn't possible raise 5 cubs?
If this was the case, then should I pick up the cub and
hand-rear it leaving her with the 4 normal-coloured cubs.
If only I could communicate with her. If only she could tell
me her strategy, if only.......?
If the second scenario was correct then I should pick up the
white cub and hand-rear it. This then ensures the survival
of the white cub and lightens the load on Julie, which then
increases the chances of survival of the other 4 normal
Scientists have long told me that to do good science, one
must remain totally objective and unemotional. However, when
it came to the crunch, Dian Fossey ended up holding hands
with her gorillas. Jane Goodall freely admits to becoming
emotionally involved in her chimpanzees. In short, human
beings are the most emotive animals on this planet, highly
creative, highly destructive, but super-charged by emotion
In fact, in Julies case, the normal cubs were in a new den
just 3m to the West of the old den. The normal cubs were so
well camouflaged and silent that I had failed to see them in
the dappled light of the thick reeds. Much later, Julie was
reunited with all her cubs and began immediately to
Therefore my non-interference in the first and second case
had been the right decision!
Let me rephrase my policy; "I desperately hope
that Julie can raise all five cubs, but logic tells me the
odds are against her. When crisis arrives I'm sure emotion
will overtake me and I will interfere. The fact that there
is a white cub involved, makes the emotions all the more
Many people from around the world have urged me to hand-rear
the white cub to ensure its survival. Others have urged me
to hand-rear 2 normal cubs, to help the white cub survive in
the wild, by lessening the competition for milk.
The concern from across the world shows how
emotionally-charged, human beings are.
For now, all 5 cubs remain with Julie. I will keep you
informed every step of the way
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