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Leah,  born two weeks ago, on the arm of Carolyn Atchison at the Animal House Sanctuary.
Daily photos by Gary Lloyd
Leah, born two weeks ago, on the arm of Carolyn Atchison at the Animal House Sanctuary.

Hold that tiger!
Miracle baby born at Lawrence sanctuary

Surprise birth at shelter; cub named for girl who dreamed

By Seth Burkett · 340-2355

MOULTON — Carolyn Atchison is calling Leah her miracle baby.

But Leah isn’t her baby.

The tiger cub’s birth at Animal House Sanctuary in Lawrence County on Aug. 9 was a surprise. Atchison, sometimes called the “Tiger Lady,” rescues all sorts of exotic animals and keeps them on the 70 acres surrounding her home.

Atchison named the newborn tiger “Leah” in memory of a 16-year-old girl whose dying wish Atchison and the cub’s mother, Tigger, helped fulfill.

In August 2002, Leah Bentley was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. Bentley, who loved tigers and bore the nickname “Tigger,” had always dreamed of having a job like Atchison’s.

Atchison took Tigger, who was 3 or 4 months old at the time, to meet Bentley at her home in Georgia after someone contacted her and told her about the girl’s long-time dream.

Bentley and Tigger played throughout the day. At the end of their visit, Atchison said, Tigger put her paws around Bentley’s neck and made a purring noise.

“That noise means, ‘I love you,’ in tiger talk,” Atchison said. “Leah asked me what the sound meant, and I said, ‘You’ve just been accepted as a tiger.’ ”

Bentley then appeared to fall asleep, a tear running down her cheek, Atchison said. The girl slipped into a coma and died the next morning.

Bentley’s family buried her ashes and erected a monument at the edge of Tigger’s compound — the same cage where Leah the tiger would later be born.

Carolyn Atchison with Tigger, the mother of the newest tiger at the Animal House Sanctuary in Lawrence County.
Carolyn Atchison with Tigger, the mother of the newest tiger at the Animal House Sanctuary in Lawrence County.
Atchison said she kept Tigger and two other 5-year-old Bengal tigers — Marlon and Tara — in the same cage since she rescued them from St. Louis in July 2002, only days before she took Tigger to meet Bentley.

Sibling cats?

Atchison said she had always kept the cats together because she was under the impression they were brother and sisters. Large cats can’t reproduce with siblings, she said.

It turned out Marlon and Tigger are not brother and sister, she said.

“None of us knew this cat was pregnant,” Atchison said. “A tiger, as big as it is and as long as it is ... and if she had a big belly, how would she be able to run down prey and hunt?”

A man who helps Atchison at the sanctuary went out early Aug. 9 to feed the cats a freshly butchered cow, Atchison said.

“He heard the babies screaming and he used the cell phone to call me,” Atchison said. “He just said, ‘Get up here! Get up here fast!’ ”

Atchison said she was speeding out to the cage on her four-wheeler when it hit her: “I thought, ‘A baby! We’ve got a baby tiger!’ ”

2 cubs; 1 euthanized

Tigger had given birth to two babies, a cream-colored one and a white one, but she had severely injured the white one. Atchison said it’s not unnatural for cats to kill their young.

“When I got it out, I wasn’t really aware of how badly it was mangled,” Atchison said. “I was concerned with getting out of that tiger’s compound. I had a 25-foot dash to make. I had to get them and get out.”

The white cub later had to be euthanized. Atchison never learned its gender.

“I didn’t want to look, because it was horrible,” she said. “I was sitting there bawling.”

31/2 pounds at birth

Atchison said she wrapped the cream-colored cub in a T-shirt and took her home. The perfectly healthy girl weighed 31/2 pounds at birth.

Now, at two weeks, she weighs about six pounds.

On Tuesday, the cub was in a pen in Atchison’s living room, crawling on a bed of towels and napping among stuffed animals. Though the cub couldn’t stand, she had become mobile enough that Atchison was already laying plans to expand the pen to fill most of the room.

The baby slurped a bottle of milk and then sucked Atchison’s fingers.

Atchison said she spends most of her day with Leah and sleeps with her at night. Getting the tiger acquainted with her early will make her easier to handle later.

“Leah’s going to be here with me until they put me in the strait jacket and haul me off,” she said.

The surprise pregnancy raised concerns.

Separate the pair?

Atchison said she doesn’t believe private parties should intentionally breed tigers in captivity. Marlon and Tigger might have to be separated to prevent further breeding.

Spaying a tiger Tigger’s age presents too many complications, Atchison said.

“If I can’t find a positive method of birth control,” she said, “I’m going to have to move her out of here (the compound shared with Marlon and Tara). I don’t want to do that.”

Atchison said it would be a shame to move Tigger from Leah Bentley’s final resting-place.

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