Twilight at the Zoo

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A bright addition to the Zoo in both color and charisma, tiger cubs Mila and Sergei have grown as expected since their November birth, and frequent visitors have already gotten to see exciting new developments in their behavior.

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Zoya with cubs Sergei and Mila

Zoya is the picture of a dedicated (but at times, understandably exhausted) mother, grooming the cubs and resting nearby as they explore their world. This is Zoya’s second litter and the animal care team proudly shared that she is doing well and taking great care of her little ones. Animal Curator Travis Vineyard said, “It has been remarkable to see how her maternal instincts have evolved.”

This striped, bonded trio of mother and cubs will remain together for some time - around two years. Leading up to the cubs’ separation from their mother, decisions around potential transfers to other zoos will be informed by the Tiger SSP, or Species Survival Plan - more on that below. And their father? Generally, solitary animals besides the mother-cub dynamic, Hector occupies a separate habitat area and has been largely indifferent to Sergei and Mila’s presence.

As for the cubs’ personalities, “Sergei is a mama’s boy and likes to roughhouse most of the time,’’ Tiger Keeper Katie Dagostino said. “Although he is adventurous, he is the more cautious of the two. Mila is full of sass and very adventurous. She is curious, but still runs back to mom for reassurance. Both cubs are very playful and can often be found wrestling together in their habitat or snuggled up in a big ball taking a little snooze.”

EXPLORING THEIR WORLD

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Sergei (left) and Mila at one month old

In the beginning, Mila and Sergei spent their time in Rosebrough Tiger Passage’s cub-friendly habitat space, which was designed with their developmental needs and safety in mind. Animal Curator Travis Vineyard shared some of these considerations, explaining that the indoor maternity den was placed in an area with reduced human activity and outfitted with privacy panels and video monitoring, allowing the animal care and veterinary teams to watch mother and cubs without disrupting their bonding time. Dagostino added, “We didn’t have an exact birth weight for the cubs because it’s so important to let the mom have time to bond with them; we did not disturb her for at least the first week. During that time, we put food in through a feed chute and checked the cameras for cub movement and nursing.”

Speaking of feeding, what do the cubs eat? Sergei and Mila still nurse, Dagostino said. “Typically, we would see the cubs weaned around 4-5 months of age, but Zoya is still producing milk and allowing them to nurse.” However, they get the majority of their dietary needs through solid food, eating almost two pounds of feline diet daily and enjoying rabbit legs once a week. Dagostino explained that carcass feeding is an essential contributor to the tigers’ overall health. “It allows them to feed on more natural prey and chew on bones, which is important for dental and gum health. As they get older, they will be offered chunk meat, whole rabbits and large bones to gnaw on.” For training and a special treat, they like goats’ milk and heavy cream.

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Mila exploring and climbing on a log

Mila and Sergei will grow to around 300 and 400 pounds, respectively, and their outdoor habitat space was built to be an enriching environment at all stages of their growth and development. In the cub-friendly area, right-size climbing structures encourage natural behaviors and access to certain habitat elements can be granted in stages. For example, the cubs were given access to the ramps and overhead passages of the space and have been seen climbing to new heights and enjoying the views. They have now been introduced to more opportunities such as swimming. Rosebrough Tiger Passage boasts four combinable spaces, a design strategy that creates diversity of perspective for the animals as they rotate between areas.

PRACTICING THEIR POUNCE

Rushing, ambushing, swatting and pouncing. It’s a treat to catch the cubs engaged in play with one another, practicing typical tiger activities - though these behaviors are hardly atypical for human children, either! The cubs are right on track with their development, said Dagostino as she shared some of the milestones the team is watching out for:

"Some of the things the team looks for within the first couple months are eyes opening, tooth development, increased mobility, and moving to a solid diet. Sergei and Mila have reached many of their milestones already and each day as they explore and play, they are becoming more mobile and agile. They do have their baby teeth and as the year progresses, we will see adult tooth development. We will also look at their emerging individual personalities, more independence from mom, and learning tiger behaviors such as pouncing, stalking, and swimming."

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Mila and Sergei at two months old

In addition to following their natural development, the animal care professionals at your Zoo are supporting the cubs’ health and welfare through thoughtful training efforts. Training empowers animals to actively participate in health monitoring practices such as blood draws, reducing the stress associated with regular check-ups and allowing for more frequent data collection. Right now, the animal care team is working with Mila and Sergei on training for basic husbandry goals: separation for feeding, name recognition, sitting, laying down, and target training, which means getting the tiger to touch a target item.

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Sergei at five months old

So, how is training conducted? Dagostino described the process: “I separate the cubs and mom to work on training individually so that there is no aggression over food and I can focus on each individual.” She and the animal care team employ a positive reinforcement approach, rewarding the tigers for correct behaviors. “I use a whistle as a bridge. That means when they hear the whistle they know they are going to get food for whatever behavior they just did.” Once they learn these basic behaviors, she continued, training can move forward with more complex behaviors such as voluntary injections, voluntary blood draws, ultrasounds, and more. “All these behaviors help us to care for the tigers and ensure they are healthy.”

Zoo News 2.0: Rosebrough Tiger Passage Keeper

SUPPORTING THE ZOO POPULATION

Hector and Zoya were approved for breeding by AZA’s Species Survival Plan, or SSP, which manages the long-term population sustainability of animals in accredited zoos. The SSP’s Breeding and Transfer Plan provides recommendations for managing a “genetically diverse, demographically varied, and biologically sound population.” In addition to breeding, animals are transferred between AZA zoos to support not only breeding goals but also individual animal health and welfare and successful group dynamics where applicable.

“Although it will be different for each cub because they are different genders, generally we estimate that they will be separated from the mother around two years,” Vineyard said. “Our priority will be to place the male (in another AZA zoo). Barring any social conflicts, Mila could cohabitate with her mother for some time.” While it is likely that Sergei and Mila will only be in Cleveland for a couple years, this time presents a rare opportunity to observe how tigers interact with one another and follow their progress through the first stages of life.

So, will there be more tiger cubs in Cleveland’s future? The outlook is good. “We fully expect that this pair will again receive a breeding recommendation once the cub placements have been confirmed,” Vineyard said.

REPRESENTING THEIR WILD COUNTERPARTS

Witnessing the beauty, uniqueness, and sheer size of Amur tigers at the Zoo via Rosebrough Tiger Passage’s up-close views is an unforgettable experience - and an undeniable inspiration to support the conservation of these quintessential big cats. With fewer than 500 Amur tigers left in the wild and a conservation status of “Critically Endangered,” dedicated efforts to protect them and their habitat are crucial. Your Zoo is contributing to this work in the Russian Far East through the Tiger Conservation Campaign, supporting the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Amur tiger program. This long-term, multi-faceted program works to address poaching, empower wildlife managers to improve patrolling, and close unneeded logging roads to prevent access to important habitat areas.

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An Amur tiger roaming through a forest in Russia

These conservation challenges seem far-off, but Amur tigers and their habitat are globally important. As an apex predator, these big cats are key to the balance of their ecosystem. They also have intrinsic value as a species; Amur tigers are charismatic and culturally significant, and they are part of a biodiverse world that is worth protecting.

There is no better way to be awe-struck and inspired by the brilliance of these animals than to visit Rosebrough Tiger Passage and see the Amur tigers at your Zoo in all phases, from inquisitive cub to attentive mother to stoic father. Sergei and Mila are growing and changing by the day, offering new behaviors and personality quirks to observe with each visit, and the animal care team is dedicated to bringing them up with an expert eye on their health and welfare.

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