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Four white tigers born at Duluth carnival

The refrain of "Why can't we keep one?" was heard Wednesday from the tiger tent at the Mighty Thomas Carnival in Duluth, where dozens showed up to ooh and ah over four newborn cubs.

One male and three female royal white Bengal tigers were born Tuesday between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to proud parents Gita and Splash, according to Zoo Dynamic zoo handler Steve Lopez. The cubs were born in a hay-lined, 10-by-10-foot cage in the carnival's tiger tent.

There are only about 400 white tigers in the world, said Zoo Dynamic senior zoologist Marcus Cook, more than 200 of them living in confinement in the United States.

"All white tigers, wherever you see them, whether in movies or at the zoo, have been born in captivity," said zoo handler Carlos Lopez. "My goal is to get the word out that these guys are dying."

He blames the scarcity of white tigers on poachers and the fact that there is no place to reintegrate them into the wild because of deforestation. He added that the survival rate in the wild for white tigers is only 11 years, compared to the 20 to 25 years common in captivity.

Although the cubs haven't been named yet, Cook said two might be called Stars and Stripes for their nearly patriotic birthday.

Each cub weighs between 2 and 2½ pounds and will spend the next six months with its mother.

"By then [six months], each tiger will be about 18 inches high and weigh about 80 pounds," said Carlos Lopez. "After they are six months old, they will gain one pound per day until they are fully grown."

Fully grown royal white Bengal tigers can range from 221 to 453 pounds for females and from 419 to 569 pounds for males, according to information from Zoo Dynamic.

For now, the cubs' only job is to eat and sleep. They won't open their eyes or be able to walk for nearly two weeks, Carlos Lopez said.

This was Gita's second litter. Her first two male cubs were born on June 8, 2005, and are living at the Amarillo (Texas) Wildlife Refuge.

"She is a really good mom," Carlos Lopez said.

Not all animal lovers are enthused about the breeding of white tigers.

A program of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, called the Save the Tiger Fund, points out on its Web site that the tiger species survival plan "has condemned breeding white tigers because of their mixed ancestry."

A white tiger can be born only when both parents carry a gene for white coloring, which occurs naturally only once every 10,000 births, according to

"To produce white tigers ... directors of zoos and facilities must continuously inbreed, father to daughter, to granddaughter, and so on," the Save the Tiger Fund Web site states.

Save the Tiger Fund says that the issue "is a contradiction of fundamental genetic principles... [which is done] for economic rather than conservation reasons."

But Cook has a different point of view.

"People that believe that are anti-zoo people and need to do the research," he said. A lot of the inbreeding took place in the 1950s, he said, when people still thought it was OK to hunt tigers because they weren't endangered. Since then, zoos have been trying to fix the problems of endangerment and inbreeding, Cook said.

"Gita and Splash are five generations back and clean on the tree," Cook said. He said breeders are using new technology to correct mistakes of the past.

One of the ways they are doing this is through out-breeding, he said -- mating animals less closely related than the average of the population.

But carnival visitors Wednesday weren't thinking about the tigers' biological issues.

"Tigers are amazing," Cook said. "We often refer to them as edutainment: both educational and entertainment."

And the viewers had the same opinion.

"I think they are really cute and cuddly," said 8-year-old Dalton Levy of Duluth. "And I think they have really cool colors."

He said he learned lots about cats and a little about tigers at school, but in real life, "they are really cute."

His cousin agreed.

"My favorite thing about the tigers is that they are big and fast," said 7-year-old Jantzen Levy.

The tigers will be at the carnival until Sunday and, though the cubs get their nourishment from their mother, the public is allowed to feed Gita and Splash for an extra few dollars.

Kendra Lisdahl and Crystal Starstead both fed the tigers pieces of raw pork and couldn't contain their excitement.

"I like tigers," Starstead said, "and the babies are beautiful."