Natasha and Tsar tentatively followed their mother, Talali, out of the Slawson Family Tiger Trek building at the Sedgwick County Zoo on Thursday night, braving rain, thunder and lightning for the first time.
The Amur tiger cubs delighted about 600 zoo members who also braved rain, thunder and lightning to get their first in-person glimpse of the rare cubs, who were born July 6.
The cubs weren’t so sure about the weather at first. One darted back into the building almost immediately, reappearing a little later. The two playfully tussled a little bit and then disappeared into some bushes. Inside the Tiger Trek building, zoo members attending a special sneak peek of the cubs “oohed” and “aahed.”
“They’re beyond adorable,” said zoo director Mark Reed, taking time to speak to zoo members individually. “It’s going to be a lot of fun watching them grow up. I can’t wait to build them a snowman.”
The female cub, Natasha, opened her eyes on July 14, and Tsar, the male, on July 15.
Talali gave birth to a cub earlier this year, but that cub died within 36 hours. Zookeepers believe Talali accidentally stepped or rolled over on the cub. Talali conceived that cub using a new artificial insemination technique. This time, she became pregnant the old-fashioned way with Ivan, who lives separately at the exhibit. Talali’s sister, Zeya, is the third adult Amur tiger at the zoo. She also was artificially inseminated but did not get pregnant and was not bred with Ivan.
Talali was hand-raised and “she’s just been a super mother,” Reed said.
As the crowd watched on Thursday, taking turns to get close to the windows to see out, Talali kept a close eye on her cubs, especially after a particularly loud crack of thunder. Before the cubs were let outside, she paced back and forth anxiously in her holding pen.
A second sneak preview for zoo members is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday. The cubs go on exhibit to the general public on Saturday.
Kirsten Stewart, her husband and two children came to Wichita from McPherson for the sneak peek.
“When we got the postcard, we put it on the calendar,” Stewart said.
The family has belonged to the zoo for about 10 years and tries to visit about eight to 10 times a year.
Zoo member Elizabeth Megee said the cubs were “so much cuter” than they were in photographs and on videos.
“I’ve been following the Facebook pictures, and they are just too cute,” she said, alluding to the zoo’s page on Facebook. “I love the way they flick their tails around.”
Keepers separate the cubs from Talali twice a week to clean her stall and weigh the cubs. Weighing them is becoming more challenging because they are becoming more and more active and “definitely have claws and teeth,” zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham said.
About 150 Amur tigers live at 50 Association of Zoos and Aquariums institutions. The Amur tiger is the largest of the tiger subspecies and is found in the wild in eastern Russia, northeastern China and the northern regions of North Korea. Their environments are harsh, and the tiger has an extra layer of fat to protect it from the cold.
Amur tigers are managed under a Species Survival Program by the association.
“The neat thing is this is full circle,” Reed said. “We built the exhibit, got the tigers, and now we have babies.”