The interface of the wild and the world of human settlement is dicey territory to be sure. Whether the elephants of the Okavango, the orangutan of Sumatra or the pangolins of Asia, wild creatures everywhere face unfriendly odds. Jacquie Oberg, now of small town Minnesota, should know. Some of those creatures ended up in her lap when she lived in Jungle Book country as a youngster.
Sail round the corner of her childhood home in NE India, which I did as a sometime guest, and you’d come face-to-face with the latest refugee from that unhappy interface: a wild cat named Ous-Ous, an elephant calf, twin Himalayan black bear cubs. But the stars of this jungle procession had to be twin Bengal tiger cubs named Ruff and Reddy.
The story of those cubs is a perfect template for what happens when human settlement pushes ever deeper into the wild: a tigress fighting to survive at the edges of an Indian village, its surrounding rice paddies and bamboo groves. She had four cubs to feed and dragging down stray livestock provided her with sustenance. But came the day of a fateful encounter when the tigress was bested, her cubs left mewling in the undergrowth.
They found themselves whisked away to a village home on stilts as the summer monsoon took hold. One fell through the slatted floor and drowned in the water below. Another sold off to a passing circus man. The remaining two, their eyes barely open, were not long for this world, it was clear. And so it came to be that twin orphan cubs landed in Jacquie O’s lap launching her career as ‘Tiger Queen’. She plied the cubs daily with a steady supply of buffalo milk. Still, the smaller cub, Reddy, failed to thrive, lost its brilliant fur and wasted away. In desperation, Jacquie O’s mother, a nurse, gave the failing creature a shot-in-the-dark dose of antibiotic. The cub made a spectacular turnaround, soon recovering its exquisite, one-of-a-kind markings.
For two years they lived with the family, the cubs daily gamboling with Rudy, a black labrador, tussling for a ragged cushion, growling as they somersaulted in play. Jacquie O says that the cats never bared their claws or left a scratch on her despite the rough and tumble. A photo essay found its way into a National Geographic publication for children while local tea planters and neighbors came by to see the now near adult-sized cats and to hear the story.
A day came when the family made preparations to return to North America. They arranged for Ruff and Reddy to be transferred to a wildlife dealer in distant Kolkata. A World War II – era DC-3 airlifted them in crates to an uncertain beyond. Jacquie O later learned that Ruff survived a month in the big city, then ‘died of a broken heart’. Reddy was packed off to a faraway zoo.
But that’s not nearly the end of the story. Years later the family unfolded the Minneapolis ‘Star’ one day to find a page-one account of a notable addition to the local Como Park Zoo. When Jacquie O. scanned the portrait of the newcomer – a male Bengal tiger – a strange feeling crept over her. The pattern of the face and a pink scar on the tiger’s nose looked hauntingly like the markings of a scrawny cub she had long ago nursed to strength from the scrappy boundary of human-wild interaction. A headlong rush to the park brought the family to the big cat enclosure where a dubious keeper listened to Jacquie O’s story. He ushered her past the barriers to the bars of the cage as the tiger rose in curiosity and crossed the enclosure. The markings were dead-on. It had to be Reddy. Dawned there a wordless, ineffable moment of mutual recognition, of shared tendernesses, crossing the years, crossing that fraught wild-human divide. A sweet truce. The big cat answered with a robust purr as it paced the cage, rubbing its magnificent coat along the metal bars.
Our troubled interface with the wild, marked by lapses, indignities and regrets, can now and then yield bitter-sweet, filigree moments. Jacquie O, now Tiger Queen of small town Minnesota, tells the straight up, wistful story.