Sunday, 21 September 2008

History in the Making - Hulooo Meets His Mother

I had the chance to see Madonna's little cubs at close range a few days ago, when Reuters came to report on our project. What a privilege to see them again! Their eyes were now fully opened but still with a blue film. They were quiet and gave us an initial silent hiss, but calmed down even trying to sleep when they saw we were quiet too.
The following couple of days were cold cold - with temperature dropping to minus 5 and then a mighty wind blew day and night. I wonder if Madonna's pacing with her cub in her mouth was due to her showing off to 327, or to the cold, or to the wind? Or a combination of all? She did move the cubs yesterday in the cutting wind, so wind was certainly a factor.
Cathay still has not come into oestrus! So I decided to use this window of time to introduce her to Hulooo. Since she never suckled Hulooo, this meeting should not affect her natural oestrus cycle. This step was supposed to be a dangerous faux-pas again. Many people had warned me not to introduce Hulooo back to Cathay, warning me that she will kill Hulooo. Even Nick Marks believed so. However, this is a necessary risk to take, for Hulooo's benefit and for his future rewilding training. I was also confident that she would not harm Hulooo for a number of reasons. First, she did not harm TigerWoods and Madonna when they were introduced to her which was also unconventional and on the contrary took them under her wings. Secondly, I have been observing her similarly and found she would chuff at Hulooo whenever she saw him. There was never any maliciousness, as TigerWoods would display, for example towards 327.
Despite what I believe, I got our team well prepared so we would be in a position to pull Hulooo into another camp in the event of trouble. We shut JenB and Coco into quarantine camp and left Hulooo in the 9 hectare. Hulooo would of course be attracted by the food in the quarantine camp so would not wander too far away so he is always close to our gate which we can open up to let him in.
We were ready, and Cathay was let into 9 hectare camp from the half hectare at the other end. She certainly took her time, calling while moving at leisure through the 9 hectare camp in our direction of the quarantine camp, as if knowing what was coming. I had anticipated much tension and potential game of dominance and submission, as with Cathay and TigerWoods when they were put together, so I got all our camera gears ready to record this unprecedented event.
Cathay came closer and closer, still looking absent minded when she approached Hulooo. Hulooo did not seem to smell her or hear her, crouching over the small piece of bone that we gave him earlier. Cathay went close to Hulooo and I anticipated anxiously what was to come. Would she challenge Hulooo? Would she hit him? Would she roar at him? Would she attempt to harm or even kill him? She is after all a tigress who has quite a bit of temper and who is extremely protective of things that are hers. For example, she hit her own cub when he tried to chuff at Madonna and tried also to crush him under her body so he could not greet Madonna. Therefore, I had anticpated at least potentially a game of dominance with Hulooo as well.
Cathay was now towering over the crouched Hulooo. Just when she lowered her head, actually to chuff at him, Hulooo got startled. Jumping, he turned around emitting a little roar at his mother! Cathay looked a bit lost, looking at us blankly, pretending nothing happened. Then she walked to her favourite big tree about 20 meters away and started another of those love affairs with it, even meat could not entice her away.
Then, she wandered off, sniffing the grass as she went. Suddenly, as if making up her mind, she ran towards Hulooo in a jolly gait, chuffing at him. For a few moments, Hulooo sniffed Cathay and lightly pawed her. Then, as if remembering something, Hulooo suddenly hitted out at his mother. Strangely, or not, all Cathay did was to chuff at him . What followed next was most unthinkable and probably never observed! Hulooo stood up and pushed his steps aggressively towards Cathay, pawing his way. Cathay continued chuffing at Hulooo while walking backwards. Hulooo alternated between sniffing and pawing his mother but his light pawing would turn into nasty strikes. He even stood up on his feet at one time arms spreading, as if fighting. I got to say he looked much like a spoilt child lashing out at his parents.
Cathay, large hearted, allowed her son to make these aggressive moves towards her without any slight sign of anger or complaints. She just retreated and returned Hulooo's meaness with kind chuffing. Her behaviour made me think that she must know this is her son! How could she be so tolerant otherwise? She has always been very maternal and she must know! Hulooo's behaviour on the contrary made me feel as if he was getting back at Cathay for something. Maybe he was getting back at her for not rearing him at birth?! Maybe he also knew Cathay is his mother? Otherwise why was he so unafraid of this much bigger tiger, while getting terrified of his younger and much smaller brothers? He got to know the truth! (And cats have to have their own language!)
After a few rounds, Hulooo decided to call it truce. Cathay, as if nothing had happened, wandered back to her favourite tree and lay down next to it, admiring the setting sun..
I have realized why Hulooo was not scared of his mother but quite playful and rough with her. He was used to big animals… humans! So when he sees another big animal - his mother, he was just doing the same playing and challenging, as he does to us! These results are amazing as it contradicts the conventional zoo wisdom of how a mother and cub would interact when reintroduced. Another first for our project!
What a great and generous mother Cathay proves to be, yet again!

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