When Siberian tiger cubs Plyusha and Clyopa's mother died during their birth in late May in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, zookeepers didn't know what to do. Then, Yekaterina Khodakova, 30, and her pet dog came to their rescue.
The dog, a Shar Pei named Cleopatra, had recently given birth to two pups of her own. "The zookeeper found out by chance that my dog, Cleopatra, was producing milk because she is nursing her pups, so he asked me if the tiger cubs could also be breastfed," Khodakova told SPIEGEL.
Survival of the cubs would be a victory for conservationists. Siberian tigers are extremely rare: less than 400 live in the wild, mostly in the cedar forests of far eastern Russia.
At first, Cleopatra was not willing to collaborate. Already nursing pups of her own, the Shar Pei was "initially reluctant and tried to bite" the tigers, said Khodakova.
After some coaxing reprimands from her owner, however, Cleopatra relented. "I didn't give up," said Khodakova. "I told Cleopatra that they would die if they didn't get milk. And sure enough, the next day, Cleopatra had adopted the unfamiliar cubs!" The dog now takes care of the tiger cubs as if they were her own puppies.
Both the dogs and the tiger cubs are getting additional sustenence during the ordeal. According to Khodakova, Cleopatra is now getting meat from the zoo "because she needs a lot of energy to breastfeed." The tiger cubs are also being fed goat milk.
Khodakova's gumption is remarkable considering that she also has an 18-month-old son, Gleb. She says she is "not afraid that the tiger cubs will bite (him). To (Gleb), they are like two friends."
Despite her desire to keep the cubs for longer, Khodakova knows that it they will have to leave soon.
Over a month old, Plyusha and Clyopa are growing quickly, and soon, "it will be too dangerous for Gleb to play with them," says Khodakova. She says she will return the cubs to the local zoo at the end of July.
That will still leave Khodakova with a small menagerie at home. In addition to the dogs and tigers, she also has a house cat named Masyanana.
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