CLEARWATER — He was getting stronger, starting to swallow ground meat, trying to hoist himself up and hobble on three legs. His eye infection had healed. The hole in his heart had almost closed.
Next month, the tiny tiger cub was scheduled to have surgery at All Children's Hospital to close his cleft palate.
But just before midnight Saturday, Fabian died.
"He was such a fighter. There were so many obstacles he overcame," said veterinarian Don Woodman, 40, who had taken the tiger into his home.
"He was a helpless little guy. But he had this latent power we all felt. He seemed to touch a lot of people profoundly."
• • •
Fabian and his brother Chester were born Easter Sunday at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehab center in Seminole. Their mother Natasha was 19 — too old, everyone thought, to have cubs.
Woodman and his wife, Susan, who is also his assistant, drove to the refuge to check on the tigers. Chester was white, with slender black stripes. Fabian was light orange, with wispy white markings. Both cubs had cleft palates — and a host of other health issues.
If the vet left the cubs there, he knew they would die. "When your mouth is malformed, you can't suck right. So you can't get enough milk," Woodman said. "They would have starved. Or their mother would have noticed something was wrong and killed them."
So Woodman and his wife took the tigers home, folded towels into a dog crate and set it in their immaculate living room. Their young sons offered a stuffed leopard and horse, so the cubs would have something to cuddle. Every two hours, Susan woke and slid a slender feeding tube down the tigers' throats to dribble in puppy formula.
The next day, Woodman called veterinary surgeons, neurologists, radiologists, cardiologists and physical therapists. He consulted specialists at Busch Gardens, in Columbus and Omaha. Everyone told him to put the tigers to sleep.
But he couldn't. "I was born with a cleft palate," Woodman said. "What if someone had tried to put me to sleep because of that?"
After exhausting animal experts, Woodman turned to the Web. There, on the site of All Children's Hospital, he found pediatric surgeon Michael Gallant, who had been repairing cleft palates in children for 31 years. Woodman didn't know it, but the children's specialist is also an extreme animal lover: owner of two cats and two rowdy Labs.
"We discovered we share the same philosophy," Gallant said. "Every animal's life — like every child's — is worth saving."
Gallant offered to do the surgery for free, there at the children's hospital. But the cubs would have to wait, he told the vet. You can't perform that operation on children until they're at least 8 months old.
By then, the vet told him, the tigers' teeth would be too big to hand-feed them. They agreed to wait until July, when the cubs would be 3 months old.
But a few weeks later, Chester stopped breathing. He may have inhaled some milk and asphyxiated.
Gallant performed a practice surgery on the dead tiger and told the vet, no problem: He could fix Fabian.
• • •
Every morning, the cub went to work with Woodman and his wife. He mewed in his crate, rolled on the floor behind the receptionist, batted at the cat customers.
Every afternoon, when Susan left to get her sons from school, she packed Fabian into her car and took him home, too. While her boys snacked on Goldfish crackers, she fed raw turkey into a blender and strained it into thick puppy formula, poured it into a bottle.
It took forever to feed Fabian. But he began to gain weight.
And Woodman went to work, trying to right the tiger's other wrongs.
A veterinary dentist examined the cub's jaws; an ophthalmologist prescribed drops for his left eye; a cardiologist monitored his torn heart. At All Children's Hospital, Gallant called in his colleagues: a pediatric orthopedist put a cast on Fabian's twisted left leg.
More than 30 veterinarian and pediatric specialists tried to save the infant tiger. "Everyone seemed to take on his fight as their own," Woodman said.
"And he trusted all these humans, trying to help him. I've never seen a cub that chuffed and purred as much as he did."
• • •
As fragile as Fabian was, as many problems as he had, the little tiger seemed to inspire everyone around him.
Nurses posed for pictures with him. Customers at Woodman's clinic asked how they could help. Another vet, whose daughter had a cleft palate, brought the girl to cradle the cub.
And on May 30, when Woodman took Fabian to All Children's to star during prime time of the hospital's telethon, viewers pledged more than $3,000 over the nine minutes the tiger was on TV.
"He was a feisty little guy," said Gallant, who was anxious to perform the cub's cleft palate surgery.
"It was almost like he had a purpose."
• • •
By the time he was 7 weeks old, he weighed almost 9 pounds. His back left leg was beginning to straighten. His sharp tiger teeth were sawing through his gums.
Fabian was starting to bite Susan when she tried to thread the feeding tube down his throat.
So on Friday, Woodman decided to implant a more permanent port into the cub's esophagus.
"He had recovered from so much worse. It never entered our minds that there would be a problem. We were just trying to make sure he got enough to eat," the vet said.
He had performed the surgery on dozens of other animals. He took an X-ray, and everything looked perfect. Fabian came out of the anesthesia purring and Woodman filled a bottle with puppy formula.
"He drank it all, hungrily," the vet said. "Then he started having trouble breathing."
Saturday morning, the tiger had a fever. Woodman rushed him to Florida Veterinary Specialists, where he and another vet slid a tube with a camera on it into the cub's stomach. They saw an abnormal pocket on Fabian's esophagus, a birth defect they couldn't have detected.
"The sac had ruptured, and infection had set in," Woodman said. "So when we fed him, that formula went right through the hole in his esophagus and flooded his lungs."
There was nothing else to do except ease the cub's suffering. Woodman knew the other vet would euthanize Fabian if he asked. But this was his tiger. His baby. A mirror of himself.
"He was a very charismatic little cub. I can't tell you how deeply he touched me," Woodman said. "We were just starting to see all the good he could bring."
The vet plans to perform an autopsy, to learn more about Fabian's problems. The pediatric specialist still wants to do the cleft palate surgery, to see what is possible on other cats. Both doctors want to keep collaborating — they realized they have much to learn from each other. They're planning papers, presentations at conferences, ongoing consultations with other experts in their divergent fields. It took a sick little tiger to bring vets and pediatric surgeons together.
Fabian didn't even live eight weeks. But maybe he was sent to us for a purpose, Woodman said. "Maybe the next time an animal is born with a birth defect, we won't just decide to do away with them."