The Baltimore Zoo announced yesterday its most blessed event of the year -- the birth of a pair of endangered Siberian tiger cubs.
Watched over by an infrared video camera, mother Alisa gave birth to the 4-pound pair, gender as yet undetermined, between 3:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. Sunday in a bed of straw placed strategically in her den by keepers. A third cub, a female, was stillborn.
Alisa was sent here in late winter by the International Wildlife Conservation Park (formerly the Bronx Zoo) on a long-term breeding loan -- chosen along with the Baltimore Zoo's male Fasier as the nation's most genetically desirable pair of captive, prospective Siberian tiger parents.
It was a mail-order romance of sorts, arranged by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums as part of a plan to protect the species from extinction. It is also one that forced the separation of Fasier from his Siberian tiger girlfriend and roommate since birth, Roxanne, who was a nice tiger, but in the scheme of genetic diversity, not as nice as Alisa.
Baltimore Zoo Director Brian A. Rutledge announced the birth. He also took a swipe at zoos that are breeding -- and devoting precious cage space to -- rare hybrid white tigers, which he said are "intended to increase visitation" but interfere with the mission of zoological parks to breed and maintain genetically diverse populations of select endangered species.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union has worsened the plight of the Siberian tiger -- the planet's largest species of cat, with an estimated 300 to 500 remaining in the wild, and their pelts selling for as much as $10,000, Mr. Rutledge noted.
"This species is going to be extinct in the wild in five or 10 years, and maybe two or three years the way they're going," Mr. Rutledge said.
Alisa -- one of 169 captive Siberian tigers registered in the North American zoos' survival program -- was oblivious to the gloomy numbers facing her kind.
She is being left undisturbed in her den, protectively nursing the fuzzy newborn cubs -- with the keepers in no hurry to find out whether they are male or female.
She has had one litter previously, at the Bronx Zoo in 1986, and "based on her behavior with her last litter, we expect Alisa to be a very protective mother," the zoo said in a birth announcement.
As for when the public will get a peek, the announcement said, "Although we are uncertain how long it might be before the cubs venture into the exhibit, we would expect them to begin exploring their home between six and eight weeks of age. The decision, naturally, will be left up to Alisa."
Despite the occasion and quite audible cries of his cubs, Fasier doubtless had no idea that he was the proud poppa. He was just prowling around a caged enclosure two doors away from Alisa's den, looking just as one might expect -- quite tigerlike.