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Louis Bayard

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A Tiger Mom Shares Her Secrets

Posted: 01/22/11 10:57 AM ET

A lot of other tigers ask me: Why do South Chinese tigers raise such successful cubs? Why do our cats grow up to be such prodigious hunters? Why are our coats so luxuriant? Why are our teeth so toothy, our growls so growly?

Underneath, I think, what these tigers are really asking me is: Can I get the same results with my own cubs?

Well, I'm here to say: You can. Because I've done it.

Here, for instance, is a short list of things my cubs, Hwang and Li, were never allowed to do:

- Lick their own genitals
- Roll in their own filth
- Nap for more than two hours at a time
- Clock under 35 mph in pursuit of a kill
- Take second place to a clouded leopard
- Bring home any prey smaller than a musk deer
- Become a component in traditional Asian medicine

I hear all the time from Bengal and Siberian and Indochinese tigers who think they're being strict. A friend of mine made a point of boasting that her cubs hunt four hours a day. "Four hours?" I said. "South Chinese cubs are just breaking a sweat by then."

How well I remember the night my little Li brought back her first kill. It was still attached to its branch, and it looked like a cross between a bat and a panda, and when Li dropped it at my feet, I was startled to see it had a pulse.

"What's this?" I asked, doing my best to keep my voice calm.

"A pygmy slow loris," answered Li.

"I see. And what exactly are we supposed to do with it?"

"Eat it?" she ventured.

"Oh, that's interesting. Eat it. That's very interesting. And maybe tomorrow, you can bring back a stump-tailed macaque. Or a Himalayan field rat. Ooh, I know! A lesser white-toothed shrew. Weeks of eating right there."

"Mom, it took me two hours just to find him."

"Two hours," I said. "And how many hours are left until sunrise?"

She mumbled something.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Four."

"So that means you still have four hours to find a mammal that doesn't bring shame to your entire Linnaean order."

She was plenty mad at me, I don't mind saying. She growled. She dug in her paws. She vowed to run off and live with langurs. For my part, I threatened to throw out all her chew toys and make her live on nothing but bamboo and gaur chips.

"And you'll eat that for a year," I snarled. "Ten years. Twenty-five!"

I didn't back down, not even when she pointed out that our natural life span is twenty. Finally, after we had exhausted ourselves arguing, Li sulkily consented to go back into the wilderness -- followed, I need hardly add, by her watchful mom.

It wasn't easy. She came a-cropper with a hairy-fronted muntjac and nearly lost her life to an Asiatic black bear. Now and again, when some quadruped proved too quick for her, she would gaze back at me, silently beseeching. "Don't look at me," I glared back. "I'm not your prey."

And so it was that, just before dawn, Li homed in on a young saiga antelope. I watched, with mounting excitement, as she crouched behind a rock and waited for the beast to trot toward its watering hole. Then, creeping toward it with an infinite and exacting patience, she lowered her head and, before the beast had even fully registered her presence, flung herself at it. For a minute or so, they rolled on the ground. The outcome was by no means certain, but Li somehow found the inner strength to straddle that squirming creature and sink her jaw into the back of its neck. And when she heard the sharp answering snap of its spine, I think it's safe to say something inside her clicked, too. She had earned this.

Now I'd be lying if I said I don't get pushback. My mate, who's Sumatran, is always telling me how hard I am on the cubs. "Why don't you ever give them a break?" he asks. "Why don't you just say, 'Hey, nice kill!'" I say, "Come talk to me when your subspecies isn't teetering on the brink of extinction." "Back atcha," he says.

Oh, Guntur is adorable and handsome, and considering that he's wandering solitary for weeks at time, he takes a surprising amount of interest in the kids. But he had a mother who nursed him until he was two weeks and told him his skat didn't stink, so he doesn't understand that a South Chinese tiger-mother never praises, she only demands. Why have cubs at all, I like to say, if they aren't going to be a credit to you and your shrinking gene pool? You might as well hand them over to the poachers. Here! Turn them into rugs already.

And in the long run, your cubs will appreciate you. I always come back to that dawn-streaked moment on the steppes when Li had her first taste of warm and viscous antelope blood.

"You were right, Mom," she said, licking her whiskers clean. "I only hated hunting because I wasn't good at it."

I very nearly made the mistake of complimenting her, but I coughed the words back down.

"You're mighty pleased with yourself, I guess. Just be sure to save the back legs for your father. And if you think I'm going to help you drag it home, think again."

She said nothing in that moment, but she didn't need to. Her eyes said it all.

"Thanks, Mom. Thanks for being such a bitch."