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Dog nursing tiger cubs ‘a miracle,’ zoo owner says

Even zoo owner Tom Harvey marvels at how his golden retriever Isabella is nursing newborn tiger cubs their mother wouldn’t care for. The dog “is literally saving these cubs day by day,” he said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

A dog doesn’t only have to be man’s best friend: At Safari Zoological Park in Caney, Kan., a young golden retriever named Isabella has taken over mothering duties for a trio of newborn tiger cubs.

Zoo owner Tom Harvey said this unusual — but not unheard of — canine-to-feline surrogacy has actually saved the lives of the newborns. “[Isabella] is literally saving these cubs day by day,” he told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Friday. “It’s actually just been a miracle.”

Harvey explained that when the cubs were born on Sunday, their birth mother, a 10-year-old white tiger named Sassy, was far too sassy to be the maternal type.

“You know, sometimes some of the animals like this, they just don’t do good with their babies,” Harvey said. “That’s when you have to step in.”

So the next day, when the cubs were looking for some motherly care, Harvey introduced them to Isabella — an impossibly puppy-faced year-old retriever still producing milk from her own pregnancy.

The protective pooch immediately took to feeding, licking and cleaning the cubs as if they were her own — and has continued to do so throughout the week.

Tom Harvey and his wife, Allie, have previously had different sets of puppies reared by a lion at their zoo, which specializes in endangered species. And in May 2007, reports surfaced from Beijing that a farm dog nursed three newborn tiger triplets.

But the zoo owners had never had one of their own dogs take on the virtual adoption of tiger cubs before.

Allie Harvey said she got the idea of getting a golden retriever for just such a purpose after watching a TV show on Animal Planet about five years ago. “[I saw] the Australian Zoo often uses golden retrievers and Labs for nurturing purposes like this,” she told Vieira. “And so it was a great excuse for me to get some golden retrievers.”

According to the Harveys, Isabella is blissfully ignorant of just how unusual her mothering skills are. However, she may be aware of all the extra attention she’s getting — not to mention all the extra goodies in her bowl.

“I told her this morning, ‘You don’t know that you’re a famous girl!’ ” Allie Harvey explained. “She just kind of looked at me.

“But I’ve been feeding her. She knows she’s getting a lot of extra food. She’s been eating eggs and cheese and rice and dog food. So she’s happy about that.”