Cats and dogs may be natural enemies in classic cartoons, but not in the TODAY studio Friday morning. Isabella, a golden retriever who adopted three newborn white tigers, gnawed contentedly on a chew toy while her three “tiger pups” — one of them hugging a stuffed tiger of her own — lazed on the floor and furniture.
The tigers, who had been on TODAY seven weeks ago, just five days after they were born, are all weighing in between 11 and 12 pounds. They’re in the process of being weaned from Isabella, but they still climb over her, chew her tail and run to “Mom” for comfort and a nurturing suckle.
As the TODAY hosts oohed and ahhed over the tender scene, Tom and Allie Harvey professed their belief that the heartwarming story of a dog and her brood of tigers is nothing less than a true miracle. The owners of a private safari park in the small Kansas town of Caney had fallen on hard times and were on the verge of closing down, victims, like so many others, of high gas prices and a suffering economy.
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“We were literally praying for a miracle,” Tom Harvey told TODAY co-anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira as one of the tigers slept in his arms. “We thought, we just don’t want to continue trying if by August 1 something doesn’t happen. If God doesn’t do a miracle by then, we’re done [we thought].”
Then, on Sunday, July 27, the Harveys' prayers were answered in a surprising way: One of their white tigers, Sassy, gave birth to three female cubs, and immediately abandoned them. By chance, one of the Harveys’ golden retrievers, Isabella, had just weaned her first litter of pups.
Isabella was still lactating, and the zoo owners remembered seeing a TV program on Animal Planet about a golden retriever in Australia nursing tiger cubs. They introduced the cubs to Isabella, and the year-old dog immediately started licking them and allowing them to nurse.
Word of this touching breakthrough in canine-feline relations quickly spread, and five days later, the Harveys, Isabella and her three adoptees were on the TODAY show. The date was Aug. 1.
The publicity brought visitors to the zoo, which has been a labor of love in which the Harveys have invested 20 years of their lives. A deal for a children’s book about the dog who adopted the tigers followed.
Isabella hadn’t just saved the cubs — she saved the ranch, too.
‘A home run’
Everything about the story is extraordinary, Tom Harvey explained. In the wild, tigers, like most animals, will abandon or even eat their newborn young in times of extreme stress. But, Harvey said, that behavior is virtually unheard of among captive tigers, who are well-fed and have no environmental stress.
However, for reasons the Harveys don’t understand, Sassy had no interest in her three cubs. On top of that unusual behavior was the happy coincidence of Isabella having just weaned her pups. Finally, even though golden retrievers are famous for their ability to get along with other animals, there was no guarantee Isabella would adopt the cubs as her own.
“It was basically a do-or-die situation, and Isabella stepped up to the plate and hit a home run,” said Tom Harvey.
Tigers are under enormous pressure in the wild, both from habitat destruction and poaching. Harvey said that three species are already extinct, and of the remaining five species, two are on the brink of extinction.
In India, a recent census revealed the existence of just 1,300 to 1,400 Bengal tigers. “They are the fastest-disappearing mammals,” Harvey said.
Those alarming statistics make the captive populations all the more important. Experts fear the day is fast approaching when tigers in captivity will be the only tigers alive.
“The wild is where they belong,” Tom Harvey said. “But we’re taking the wild away from them.”
And speaking of wild, the Harveys said that the cubs will always think of Isabella as Mom. Still, they plan to separate the cubs and the dog when the tigers get bigger — “just in case.”