As her keepers approached her habitat recently at the Dallas Zoo, 3-month-old Sumini woke up from her nap, ready to show off to her visitors.
The baby Sumatran tiger ran to greet them, jumping into piles of leaves and somersaults in the hay to make sure she was the center of attention. Her legs – a little too big for the rest of her body, suggesting a growth spurt – hit the ground as she played.
“There she is, ‘Zoomie Sumi’,” said Lisa Van Slett, associate curator of mammals at the zoo, using a nickname staff gave the cub due to its rowdy behavior.
A group of children leaned over the edge of the exhibit, in front of the gibbons in Primate Square, to get a better view, squealing at the sight of the little one. At one point, Sumini huffed happily, making a breathing sound similar to the purring of a domestic cat.
“I can say for sure that cats are cats,” Van Slett said. “They love to do all the cute things with cats.”
Sumini’s energetic and inquisitive demeanor towards humans is partly indicative of his journey through the world. She is the first baby tiger to be born at the Dallas Zoo since 1948 and, after a few challenges, she is well on her way to being full time in the public eye.
A hand-raised teddy bear
Eight-year-old Sukacita gave birth to Sumini on August 2. She had been recommended to breed with Kuasa, 10, by the Sumatran Tiger Species Survival Plan created by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the group that accredits the Dallas Zoo.
Although both were recommended for breeding, the introduction of strictly solitary animals had to be done with care.
In the spring, the guards began to present the two backstage through what is called a “hello”. During a howdy, tigers share a mesh wall and can see, feel and talk to each other. Keepers watch for positive signs between animals to tell when it’s time to breed.
“They should both be rubbing each other, and they’ll kind of touch their noses and the smell, and they’ll rub their cheeks,” Van Slett said. “The cheek rub will become like body rub, and she’ll rub her whole body along the side of the fence and roll on the ground, which is another big sign. … Her behavior is also very important, so if he can’t see her he will desperately call.
Van Slett said the experience of hosting three lion cubs last summer helped keep the keepers ready for Sumini’s birth. Staff kept a close eye on Sukacita through cameras installed in the habitat behind the scenes, and Sumini was born around 100 days after mating of the couple.
But there was a big problem: Sukacita was not showing a natural maternal instinct, and the staff weren’t sure she was producing milk. Vets, zoo management and experts on the species’ survival plan made the difficult decision to hand-raise the cub, which means it would be fully bottle-fed.
The decision to hand raise an animal comes with certain risks.
“For tigers, they can imprint themselves on people quite easily,” Van Slett said, referring to the condition in which an animal is more comfortable with humans than its own species. “In AZA zoos it is best to have them reared by their mothers, because as adults they are more likely to reproduce successfully. “
Sumini develops from certain behaviors, but there are still indications that it has imprinted itself on humans.
“She’s definitely interested in people,” Van Slett said. “It was awhile that she was calling when we were away. She likes it when people are around and looking at her.
To help her stay associated with other tigers while she was hand-raised, Sumini had a “tiger babysitter” each day, an elongated form of salute.
“Even from the first day of her birth, we would shoot the adult in the room next to her so she could still hear the tigers, smell the tigers and have them right around her,” Van Slett said. .
Pass the “swimming test”
After about 11 weeks, Sumini was herself weaned from the bottle. The staff no longer spend much time in the habitat with her and she now eats meat.
But moving away from bottle-feeding was only the first step on her journey to adulthood. On November 17, the little one had to overcome another obstacle: the swimming test.
“They are natural swimmers and have webbed feet, but they still need to learn,” Van Slett said.
While her habitat is an acre complete with bamboo stems, a swimming pool, and plenty of logs to climb, Sumini is confined to a run of about 60 feet against an exhibit wall. Affectionately dubbed the “baby-proof” area, the track is surrounded by a 4-foot black fence and contains plenty of toys.
Making sure Sumini is a good swimmer is a big step towards removing that fence.
On the day of the test, Van Slett stood by the pool and threw the cub in it. Sumini landed with a splash and confidently paddled to shore.
“She was natural,” Van Slett said. “She was perfectly successful. … We knew she was ready for this because we sometimes saw her on her bowl of water splashing and splashing with her little paws playing with the water, so she was telling us it was about time.
Now Sumini just needs to expand a bit before the staff are ready to take down the baby gates.
At 3 months old, Sumini is around 2 feet long and a foot tall. Sumatran tigers are the smallest tiger subspecies; As an adult, Sumini will be around 5 feet long (not including his tail), 3 feet tall, and 200 pounds.
Staff would like to see her gain at least 15 pounds before they feel comfortable letting her roam the entire habitat.
“We’re just waiting for it to get bigger so it doesn’t get lost in the acre,” Van Slett said.
A monumental victory for the species
When Sumini was born, the Dallas Zoo called it a “monumental victory” for his species.
The Sumatran tigers are critically endangered. Only about 400 remain in their natural habitat on the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia.
While zoo animals are usually named after their personalities, Sumini is an exception.
“Sumini is the last name of a woman in Indonesia who founded and leads a team of all-female rangers in the forest in Indonesia,” Van Slett said. “They go there to check snares and other poaching traps, and generally to protect the forest because there is a lot of deforestation in this area. We thought that was a really good, strong female name for her.
For now, Sumini is in her run from 9 a.m. until around noon each day. Eventually, she will spend the whole day in the entire habitat and make daily rotations with the five other Sumatran tigers in the zoo.
Until she is ready, the staff will do their best to help her grow. They will also begin training sessions, in which Sumini will participate for years to come, which are designed to facilitate regular veterinary care.
“The actual training will be his whole life, we will continue to work on it,” Van Slett said. “As long as they get these really positive rewards and favorite treats at the end, they’re pretty good at it.”