Isabella, the golden retriever who last year adopted three white tiger cubs and saved a rural Kansas zoo, was having a last romp with her 140-pound “pups” in their spacious new enclosure. Although the tigers have never acted aggressively toward the gentle dog that they know as their mom, they’re simply getting too big to mingle unsupervised with a dog.
“This is kind of their last hurrah today,” Tom Harvey, who owns and operates Safari Zoological Park in Caney, Kan., with his wife, Allie, told TODAY’s Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira Thursday.
Farewell family fun
As they talked, the now-adolescent beasts splashed in their pool, clawed at a big deflated ball and nuzzled Isabella and her pup, Sandy — the dog that, in their eyes, is their sister.
“They love Isabella,” Allie Harvey said. “They love to play with Sandy the puppy more than they do Isabella. Izzy just kind of supervises everything.”
Lauer asked if the dogs were starting to be in danger from the tigers, which were raised in the Harveys' home but remain, at heart, fearsome predators.
“The play is pretty much done with. We’re just kind of doing an interaction here this morning so that people can see that the animals still get along really well — but we’ve been supervising them,” Tom Harvey admitted.
The Bengal tigers — Nasira, Anjika and Sidani — will soon be celebrating their first birthday, just as the Harveys are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the zoo they have operated as a labor of love.
Miracle adoptionThe Harveys regard the entire saga of the white tigers and their canine foster mom as little less than a miracle. Last year, as gas prices soared and the economy soured, they watched attendance at the zoo dwindle alarmingly, along with their income.
They decided to give themselves until Aug. 1, 2008, for things to turn around. If they didn’t, they saw no alternative to closing the park.
That’s when a white Bengal tiger they had gave birth to the triplets. Within 15 hours, she abandoned the helpless cubs.
Isabella was just a year old and was in the process of weaning her first litter of two pups. The Harveys decided to see if Izzy, as they call the dog, could be a surrogate mother for the tigers.
The cubs took to her and thrived on Izzy’s milk. The story of the dog who adopted three tigers quickly spread. On Aug. 1, the deadline for either saving or closing the zoo, the Harveys, Isabella and the cubs found themselves on the TODAY show.
Hearts melted at the cute cubs and the gentle canine. People flocked to Caney to see them. The zoo was saved.
‘Tiger teens’The Harveys were able to build a large new home for the cubs. “We moved them in here in the spring. It’s nice and large. It has a pool for them,” Allie Harvey said. “They’re out of the house.”
“We call them ‘tiger teens’ now,” added her husband. “We’ve gone from tiger pups to tiger teens.”
The big adolescents have long since been weaned from canine milk. “They get chicken and beef every day,” Tom Harvey said.
The Harveys have even written a book, “Tiger Pups,” about the year the cubs grew up with Isabella in their home. So it’s not surprising that they have “big party plans” for the cubs’ first birthday.
It’s a pivotal moment, when the cubs will learn to live without their canine mom and sister.
Lauer asked if there were plans for the dogs to visit from time to time in the future.
“It’ll basically be nil,” Tom Harvey said.
Behind him, tigers and dogs ambled happily and peacefully in the enclosure — unaware that this was goodbye.