By Roger Harrison
“How did you get that scratch, dear?” asked a gushing socialite, wondering what a déshabille and only slightly bloody pensioner was doing turning up late to her rather elite diplomatic soirée.
“One of the tigers did it.”
A pin dropping would have sounded like a truck-load of scaffolding poles overturning in an empty cathedral as her un-ironed face froze into immobility. Eventually she thawed enough to murmur, “really dear” before dissolving like Will o’ the Wisp back into her brocaded habitat.
As conversation stoppers at cocktail parties go, this was a winner. The best part of it was, it was true.
Duke is a young White Bengal Tiger, had taken, what was for him a playful lunge at a tempting forearm.
“He’s getting a bit nippy,” Snezana Durich, his adoptive “Tiger Mama” had warned earlier. “You should greet him by ‘chuffing’”.
I had no idea of what ‘chuffing’ was and on second thoughts, I suppose a bleeding, four-inch tramline from an insanely sharp incisor might euphemistically be described as “a bit nippy”, especially when it comes to boisterous tiger cubs. Of necessity, I quickly learned to ‘chuff’, a brusque, low, growly exhalation of breath, more like a cough than a growl. It worked, and the instant response to a companionable ‘chuff’ was returned accompanied with a comfortable slow blink that signaled ‘no fear’.
Snezana grinned hugely; “Seems you can be trained too!”
Duke has a sister. Duchess at ten weeks was somewhat inclined towards chewing ripe socks. That is normally not a problem as far as it goes, but I was occupying them at the time.
What possessed a sane, worldly and hugely energetic woman to bring up tigers? As with so many life-changing decisions, it was a combination of availability, ‘right place, right time’ and a spontaneous and now long-term sense of simple love and responsibility for abandoned animals.
Snezana, is former Artistic Director for Fashion TV and Entertainment Director for Nikki Beach resort, positively fizzes with energy and is clearly driven by a powerful passion for what she does. Her husband received his tiger training from one of the master trainers for Siegfried and Roy, famous white-tiger handlers in Las Vegas. He has, she said, an outstanding and exceptional relationship with tigers and lions and been working with big cats for 20 plus years or so in various parts of the world.
One day, he mentioned in passing that a couple of tiger cubs had been born in captivity.
“Cubs born in captivity are often rejected by their mother and will die without human intervention,” said Snezana. Her husband asked whether she would like to become a “tiger mama” for a while. “I thought – ‘Aaah; let me check my agenda…Yup, cancel everything!’ and I immediately said ‘yes’. Easiest and best decision I ever made!”
Unlike human parenting, tiger parenting can be taught and, with her husband’s tutelage, Snezana learned quickly. There was much to learn.
White tigers are born with immune systems that are compromised or completely absent, so anything and everything can go wrong.
“We just spent the last three weeks in and out of hospital with Duchess as she got very sick, water on her lungs then a kidney infection” said Snezana. “We worked with an animal communicator and healer from South Africa Mary Carey and doctors here in the UAE. We used special patented H3O2 water from America to nourish her back to health. It was very challenging and we almost lost her four times.”
She’s back in rude health and exploring the concept of socks…….
Oddly, when tigers are born they have no control over their bowel and bladder movements and cannot perform either without external stimulation. They simply don’t know how to use them. Babies need to be stimulated to pass their stool a minimum of once per day.
In the wild the genital areas have to be stimulated their mother – the constant nuzzling and licking of the cubs’ genitals achieves this, plus this will help to hide the scent from predators.
“That in itself is a massive job, three to four times a day, everyday until approximately 13-15 weeks old, I have to rub their genitals to simulate the mother’s attentions. Generally they start to urinate on their own about 6 weeks of age, and don’t have their first stools on their own until 13-15 weeks. Once they are a little older we teach them to use absorbent pads and then a little older, do the necessary outside in the garden.”
Tigers need tiger food – and the cubs are on a special tiger milk replacement from Australia for the first weeks. Meat in a solid form is gradually introduced to them at around seven weeks. “We keep records, growth charts of every feeding, every bowel movement!!”
In the beginning feeding is every two hours progressing through three, for five and six hour intervals.
“Only at about the six hour feeding cycle can I finally get some sleep! It’s really full on and a massive responsibility. Exercise, obviously is a huge factor in the caring mix. We play, run, swim, train, it’s non-stop 24 hours seven days a week. It’s joyful!”
Tigers have never been bred as domestic animals; feline and with a passing similarity to the domestic cat, at the core they are wild. However, if handled by a human from the very early stages, they learn respect from what Snezana describes as the “Alpha Mama”. “It’s all about nature vs nurture”, “we don’t try to change what they are, tigers by nature, we merely nurture them with lots of love and positive reinforcement, to make it safe as possible to enable us to co-exist with such a magnificent creature”.
“I can feel their moods just like people and sometimes they just want to be left alone. I feel their energy and comply,” Snezana said. “I have been with them since they were born. I fed them, slept with them, played with them, nurtured them – did everything a natural tiger mama would do with them 24 hours a day seven days a week. “
The relationship is almost mystical – “I am a part of them and they respect me as I do them. Mutual respect has never been an issue. We have an understanding. It is mutual respect of the highest order but I am the alpha mama so my demands for respect are set from the young early stages.”
Snezana reflected for a moment, “I always say, what we do with them today is what they will become tomorrow”.
Seeing Snezana and her husband playing what to an outsider seem “rough” games bowling the young cubs over, gives a pause for thought. “It’s how they learn.” This exuberant play is as nothing compared with the parental slaps of a female Bengal Tiger, weighing in at anything up to 200kg and reaching 2.6 metres in length. “These are not domestic cats, but much bigger and stronger. These high-spirited games are in fact teaching the cubs about play, but also how not to be rough and where the limits of play around humans actually are.”
Snezana understands that one never, ever, domesticates exotic animals. “And why would you?” she asks. “You have to respect their living being and in return they will respect you. You teach them to co-exist with us humans and what is acceptable and what isn’t. They are very smart cats!They are absolutely not pets!”
Snezana confided that the first couple months are the most challenging as the cubs are experimenting by nipping and biting. Gradually a mutual understanding develops and “the cubs come to terms of what is acceptable and what isn’t for we humans living with you tigers. Yes you can play; yes you can bite but not hard, and we don’t have fur so be gentle with us and love us. It’s a great mutual friendship. Our cats don’t disobey; they just want to have fun and are boisterous and cheeky, fun and delightful. They are what they are, tigers”.
She has the scars to prove it!
Eventually, Duke and Duchess will have to leave Snezana’s home. “Once they are old enough we plan to put them at Ras Al Khaimah Wildlife Park. They are doing some great work there. We are doing some fundraising and Waldorf Astoria here in RAK is behind us and we will get everyone involved to make RAK Wildlife Park a premier tourist attraction and destination.”
Snezana will energetically collaborate with the Middle East Animal Foundation and RAK Tourism behind them to raise public awareness of the rescue sanctuary, one of the very few in the UAE.
Since January 2017, the UAE has wisely outlawed the keeping of exotic animals anywhere but in zoos, circuses and sanctuaries. Snezana anticipates a dramatic increase of refugees arriving on her doorstep or at the sanctuaries.
“I think we are going to be very busy!” she said. As the first Animal Behaviourists and Consultants in the UAE licensed to tend for these abandoned exotic cats, there is no doubt about it. To handle the expected increase of exotic guests ahead after the new regulations, Snezana hasregistered a specialist company, inevitably called Royal Paw Consultants.
Many apocryphal and perhaps some true stories exist concerning hand-reared animals recognising their adoptive human mothers after years of separation. Snezana enthusiastically believes this.
“At one time, I didn’t see some of the babies I raised and reared for quite a few months and the minute we saw each other, there was a lot of chuffing and joyful play! As with domestic cats, they rolled on their backs paws in the air for tummy rubs, nuzzled in for head-rubs and generally were delighted to reacquaint! ”
She emphasised that animals did not identify you by where you are from or what religion you are or how old you are or what you drive or where you work or live, what shoes you wear or your designer bag.
No wonder some people prefer cats – big and small – to humans.
“They know you by your energy – I think of it as vibrations. That’s it. So if you have fear, they know and sense it. If you have love, they feel it. It’s all about energy and this is what has really drawn me into this phenomenal animal kingdom.”