Baby Tiger Travels by Southwest Jet, in Search of a Better Life in San Diego

Incompatible with his birthmother, a National Zoo cub seeks friendship in San Diego

Damai's son will be named at the San Diego Zoo following a period of consultation with his original caretakers. A Sumatran tiger, the little guy is an important member of an endangered species. National Zoo

At 8:25 EDT this morning, a Southwest Airlines aircraft departed Baltimore-Washington International Airport bearing precious cargo: a 9-week old Sumatran tiger cub. The offspring of National Zoo tiger Damai, the youngling is bidding adieu to his birthplace, and is en route to a new home at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in California.

The reason for the transfer lies in incompatibility between the child and his mother, who has on multiple occasions exhibited aggressive behavior towards her son, including biting and barking. Damai has also been producing insufficient quantities of milk for him to feed on, so zookeepers have had to intervene, supplementing her meager offerings with their own cocktail of kitten milk and other additives intended to serve as a stand-in for the real thing.

Damai’s neglect and precipitous drop-off in lactation suggests that she is entering estrus again, and that she never really forged a motherly bond with her baby. Brandie Smith, associate director for animal care sciences at the National Zoo, has a couple theories as to how this unfortunate circumstance arose.

For one, Smith says, it’s possible that Damai was sick or otherwise debilitated during the initial weeks of bonding, and that once she fell behind in milk production, it was difficult to rebound.

Another plausible explanation is that Damai wasn’t producing enough milk simply because she only had one cub. Since zookeepers had to step in early to make sure her son was getting his full quota of nutrients, Damai may have grown complacent with the situation, and gradually more distant.

Whatever the case may be, Smith says, “His mom clearly rejected him,” and he needed a fresh environment in order to thrive.

As luck would have it, a tiger cub fell into the lap of the San Diego Zoo a few weeks ago, when it was discovered during a routine vehicle search by patrolmen stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border. Recognizing that the young cat could use a companion, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park offered to take Damai’s cub and set him up in a loving environment in the Southern California sunshine.

“As he goes forward into adulthood,” Smith says, “he’ll spend all his time with that other tiger,” receiving invaluable socialization through routine play and other interaction. They will “learn how to be tigers together,” says Great Cats curator Craig Saffoe, who is accompanying the cub on the plane ride.

At the National Zoo, it’s a bittersweet moment. “My team has mixed emotions right now,” Saffoe says. Smith is less coy. “Oh, goodness,” she says, “you can only begin to imagine how attached we are to him.”

At the end of the day, though, Smith, like the other Zoo personnel, knows that the move is for the best. “Ultimately,” she says, “this is such a great opportunity for him.”

UPDATE 9/12/2017: A previous version of this article reported that the tiger cub's Southwest flight was chartered. Instead, the cub flew aboard a commercial flight inside an animal carrier, occupying his own seat.  

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