I don’t usually blog about programmes I’ve seen on TV, but last night I watched something so amazing, I thought I’d share. Episode 1 of Tigers about the House documented the birth of two Sumatran tiger cubs in Australia Zoo. Giles Clarke is the zookeeper with special responsibility for the Sumatran tiger breeding programme. He has a remarkable relationship with the tigers under his care. The ethos of the zoo is that if the public can touch and stroke animals they are more likely to be interested in conserving them. So the zoo is very hands on for visitors. This idea extends to the keepers when it come to the tigers. They spend a lot of time in the cages with their charges, giving them treats, handling them, talking to them. They take them, on leashes, for wild walks, so they can experience more than the confines of their enclosures.
Sumatran tigers face extinction in the wild by 2020. 80% of their Indonesian rain forest habitat has been cut down and they are poached ruthlessly for use in Chinese medicines. Breeding programmes, like the one of which Australia Zoo is part, may be the only chance these incredible animals will have to avoid joining a long, sad list of extinct animals.
Kaitlyn is six years old. She gave birth to two cubs, initially named Spot and Stripe, last year. In the first programme of the series, we saw Kaitlyn with Giles as he performed an ultrasound, and took blood to check her hormone levels during the later stages of her pregnancy. She was totally unfazed by all this, the bond of trust between tiger and keeper is so strong.
Giles stayed with Kaitlyn throughout her labour, and helped the weakest cub latch on when it had problems just after the birth. Again, Kaitlyn trusted him implicitly. I wouldn’t mess with new born kittens from a domestic cat – they can be viciously protective of their young.
The two cubs are special. They represent a much needed new blood line for the breeding programme, so the decision was made to hand-rear them. Giles took the cubs home, and proceeded to feed them on demand, night and day for the next few weeks. The sight of a beautiful cub lying across the palm of his hand, fast asleep, while he stroked its back brought a lump to my throat.
Next Monday, episode 2 follows the growth of the cubs as they get their milk teeth and start to explore their surroundings in a more energetic way. I can’t wait!
Giles was so unassuming in the way he explained his work, but he seemed to me to be a truly remarkable man – totally committed to the tigers in his care. But somehow it’s more than that – it’s the way the tigers seem to reciprocate his affection, the way they trust him. There is so much negative stuff happening in the world, and I guess this breeding programme wouldn’t be necessary if we hadn’t driven beautiful animals like the Sumatran tiger to the brink of extinction. But there is good in the world, and positive people like Giles Clarke, and beautiful blue-eyed tiger cubs with a future ahead of them. Just for once, I watched the end of a documentary feeling that all isn’t lost. If there is hope for the tigers, there may be hope for us too.