From preemie cheetahs -- and Fiona -- to Malaysian tiger cubs, Cincinnati Zoo's nursery never rests

"It has been a busy year"
Posted at 6:00 AM, Apr 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-10 07:02:00-04

CINCINNATI -- It's just before 11 a.m. at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden nursery, where Dawn Strasser, head of the nursery staff, is attempting to feed three Malaysian tiger cubs.

Outside the enclosure, both Rocko the wallaby and Blakely the nursery dog are clamoring to get in. Other wallabies, liberated during the morning cleaning, bound about the room as Lucy the bearcat looks down disinterested from her perch. All and all a pretty calm morning, Strasser says, especially when compared to the last 12 months.

"It has been a busy year. It's been interesting," she said. "Just when you think it's busy, it gets busier."

During the past 12 months, the nursery team has been instrumental in raising some of YouTube's most well-known preemies, including three plus one cheetah cubs and of course Fiona the hippo. The team's current residents are three female Malaysian tiger cubs that moved in after being rejected by their mother.

As Strasser feeds one cub, the other two scream for more. The Malaysian tiger scream has become a familiar sound in the nursery since the cubs took occupancy, so much so that Strasser now uses it as her phone's ringtone.


While the tiger cubs appear to be the picture of health, Strasser pointed out that that wasn't always the case with cub Chira. She explained that before they separated her from her mother, Chira experienced some trauma to her spine that resulted in failure to thrive. While X-rays and blood work appeared normal, Chira struggled sucking on the nipple while feeding and appeared less active each day. Strasser said that while desperately trying to diagnose the problem, she remembered a conversation she'd had with her chiropractor about human babies needing adjustments in order to nurse.

"(Dr. Mark Sperbeck) came and felt her vertebrae, made an adjustment, and she yelled like humans do and then she totally relaxed," Strasser said. "I thought, okay, he did something and after he left I gave her a bottle and she collapsed the nipple because she was sucking so hard, and I had to get a regular-sized nipple for her and she took the bottle straight down."

MORE: Cincinnati Zoo calls in chiropractor to treat Malayan tiger cub

In addition to unraveling the mystery behind Chira (named for chiropractor), Strasser said the team of three -- including herself, nursery keeper Michelle Kuchle and Blakely the Australian shepherd nursery dog -- have faced a number of challenges.

Just more than a year ago, the team worked 24/7 shifts with the premature cheetah cubs in what Strasser described as non-stop critical care. She said at 8 weeks old, the cubs were still the size of 2-week-olds because their bodies couldn't process the calories. As a result, she said, she and Kuchle took shifts feeding the cubs every two hours.

"We were here three months straight for 16-hour days," Kuchle said.

Head nursery keeper Dawn Strasser cuddles with Malaysian tiger cubs Chira, Batari and Izzy.

While the other cubs made great progress, Strasser said, Redd still failed to gain weight, resulting in having to put him on a feeding tube to catch up. Five times a day, Redd would patiently sit on their laps while they plugged him for feedings. To keep the tube covered, she said they had to become creative with his attire.

"We had to put something on him because wraps don't work, because they run and slide off, so we thought, 'What about a onesy?' " she said. "I still have his clothes … I can't believe they're a year old."

While the zoo's team of caretakers boasts plenty of experience raising premature babies, the exception would be preemie Nile hippos. Fiona is the first premature Nile hippo ever to be hand-raised, leaving caretakers in a bit of quandary in regard to her nutrition and normal progress.

Fiona the hippo.

Strasser said they contacted sources around the world to come up with an easily digestible formula that would also promote weight gain. The next challenge surfaced when Fiona's breathing became labored as she was trying to learn how to hold her breath to dive underwater, an innate behavior for young hippos. Since her lungs were under-developed as a preemie, Strasser said, Fiona holding her breath resulted in far too little oxygen.

"So that's when I used some things I learned that when you hold a baby they learn to breath off of your breathing -- and I was holding her and I realized she wasn't diving anymore," Strasser said. "Because she was doing the dive response all the time, she wasn't getting enough oxygen in her body, so we started doing that and she started breathing better."

Now that Fiona has surpassed 100 pounds, the days of the baby hippo lounging on Strasser are long gone, she said. As Fiona grows, she tends to spend far more time in her pool, but likes to know there's someone close. When Fiona grows a bit larger, Strasser said, it will be safe to put her back in with her parents.

"At some point we'll ween ourselves off of her," she said. "She has to realize she's a hippo and she's not a person and recognize hippos as one of her own."

As part of the process of hand-raising animals, Strasser said, caretakers must spend enough time with infants to recognize when subtle changes occur. While blood work and vitals may look normal, she said, often there may be changes in diet or behavior that signal something's off -- a process she used with Chira.

"Anybody can stick a bottle in the mouth," she said. "It's just picking up on the subtle changes, that's the hard part to teach."

Currently, team member Blakely is spending time with the tiger cubs, teaching them how to interact with other animals. Strasser explained that, like human siblings, they are constantly poking and testing each other. She said Blakely acts in a parental role, growling as a sign to stop or back off -- an important signal to know when they eventually meet males of their own species.

"We just do the grunt work," Kuchle said. "Blakely does the hard work."

Watch Blakely with the cubs here.

While it appears the nursery team has the most enviable job in the world, it comes with a price. Strasser said every morning she wakes at 3:30 a.m. to begin her day, which may easily last 24 hours or more. In addition to tiger and hippo care, she's currently preparing for the births of a number of other new additions, including the black rhino baby due in July.

Ideally, babies will make it full term and mom will care for them, she said, but they always have to be prepared, just in case.

"So we've already started to prep for a couple of potential babies coming up, and then you just wait and see," she said. "We don't want a problem, but if you have a problem, you need everything now, not in 10 days. It's better to be ready for everything."