CINCINNATI -- Late-night talk show host Seth Meyers recently squeezed a bit of Cincinnati news into the opening monologue of his show. With a newscaster's tone, he announced: "The Cincinnati Zoo recently brought in a dog to care for three tiger cubs neglected by their mother. Said visitors, 'I don't see a dog.'"
After a long pause for laughter, Meyers leaned forward, pretended to call for the dog and couldn't keep himself from giggling through the punchline: "'I just see three fat tiger cubs.'"
Half of that joke is true. Blakely, a 6-year-old Australian shepherd, has been caring for the zoo's three Malayan tiger cubs since caretakers determined that their mother, 3-year-old Cinta, was unable to effectively parent them in their earliest and most vulnerable weeks of life.
But (in case you were holding your breath) he's in no danger of becoming a snack for his stripey new charges. Blakely, said head nursery keeper Dawn Strasser, is "bomb-proof," and this isn't his first time raising an unusual litter.
Teaching cubs to be tigers
Historical accounts of feral children -- real-life Mowglis whom wolves or primates adopt as hairless, flat-toothed members of their own social group -- often unravel into stories of extreme social maladjustment as the child attempts to re-integrate into human society.
An animal might be able to teach a child how to feed herself and keep warm in the cold, but it can't teach her how to speak, shake hands or interpret other humans' body language. The only way a person can learn to be a person is by interacting with other people.
That goes both ways, Strasser said. Although she and her fellow keepers ensure zoo babies too sick or neglected to be raised by their parents are warm, fed and physically healthy, it's far more difficult for a human being to teach them how to behave around other animals.
If a young animal is introduced to other members of its species without the proper social education, the situation can turn tense, emotionally traumatic and even violent.
Strasser learned that firsthand years ago.
"We raised a cat, and he was by himself. When he got introduced to another cat, I think he ended up killing it because he didn't understand how rough was too rough," she said. "He had no idea what to do. I thought, 'I can't live with myself knowing we could do something better than that.'"
Enter Blakely, then a 7-month-old pup. Strasser knew when she first visited him that she was looking for a special kind of animal to become the nursery's resident nanny: One with the patience to endure the nips and noises of spending time around exotic baby animals, the obedience to act as a go-between for keepers and the temperament to take on a parental role without becoming neurotic over time.
"He came up to me wagging his tail, and then I started combing him, brushing him, talking to him," Strasser said of their first meeting. Her goal was to behave "like a bratty 3-year-old" and find a dog who wouldn't be shaken by it. Blakely passed the test.
"He was just like, 'Whatever.' He couldn't care less."
He came to the zoo that year and raised his first adopted pup, a cheetah cub named Savanna. Since Savanna moved on with Max, another puppy playmate, Blakely has become a foster parent to a bat-eared fox, wallabies, a warthog, more cheetahs and, most recently, a takin named Dale.
Blakely raised Dale and accompanied the baby takin for his first meeting with his mother, Sally. With a familiar furry presence nearby, Stresser said, Dale found it easier to approach his new environment and meet a then-strange animal; today, mother and baby are happily on display together.
"Instead of being a really traumatic introduction, (Dale) did exactly what he should have done," Strasser said. "We didn't have this long, drawn-out, 'Are they going to hurt each other? Do they like each other?'"
The only problem child among the bunch? A skunk.
"The skunk was a jerk, man," said nursery keeper Michelle Kuchle. "Blakely sat on him a lot."
'He's my translator'
Blakely serves a variety of purposes for zoo babies such as Dale and his new charges, Malayan tiger triplets Batari, Chira and Izzy. He's a furry jungle gym, a warm body to cuddle against and a play partner, but the most important role he plays is hands-on etiquette coach. He teaches the cubs what a human zookeeper simply can't.
"You can say 'No,' but a tiger doesn't understand that," Kuchle said. "They do understand his ears going back."
"They don't speak English, and I don't talk cat," Strasser added. "He can understand English, and he can speak animal -- he understands the correct animal cues. He's my translator."
If the cubs were raised exclusively by keepers, Strasser said, they'd be "three little brats who don't know anything." Although there's still a gulf between proper dog behavior and proper tiger behavior, Blakely and the cubs speak enough of an instinctive common language that interaction teaches them the basics: How hard of a play-bite is too hard, how flattened ears and growling are a warning sign and when it's not appropriate to bring the claws to a wrestling session.
He's less prim than a human etiquette instructor but no less effective.
"He'll lay on top of them (when they misbehave), and he'll knock them over; he'll sit on them," Strasser said. "He keeps them proper, and he's worked out great."
'Keeping proper' is especially important for Batari, Chira and Izzy, who number among just a few hundred members of their critically endangered species. The zoo plans for each of them to be placed in a breeding pair when they're old enough to have cubs of their own, and Blakely's social education inoculates them against what could otherwise be a deeply awkward first date.
With his help, Strasser said, they should be able to greet their future mates correctly and bond with their own cubs, contributing to the future survival of the Malayan tiger as a species.
Blakely will have a new batch of babies to care for when the triplets move on, although the zoo isn't sure what species his next adoptees will be. In the meantime, he'll be enjoying his favorite hobbies -- walks, naps and being the center of attention -- and teaching the tigers to mind their manners. He's spoiled, Strasser said, but he works hard enough to deserve it.
And don't worry, Seth Meyers. If any of the cubs try to take a bite out of Blakely, he can always sit on them.