The vet got the call Easter morning: Two tigers had been born in a Seminole sanctuary. One was orange. The other black and white.
Could he come check them out? The sanctuary director wanted to know.
Don Woodman, 40, and his wife, Susan, finished hunting eggs with their two boys, then drove to Wildlife Rescue and Rehab. The director led them to the pen of a 19-year-old tiger, Natasha, and lifted out a cub.
It was so small, Woodman cradled it in one hand.
The vet touched the round tummy, peered into the ears, gently lifted the eggshell thin eyelids. He prodded the soft paws, ran his finger along the tiger's spine. Then he opened its mouth.
Behind the pink gums, above the sandpapery tongue, there was nothing. He tipped the tiger's head back and could see all the way through its nose. The cub's mouth had no roof.
The vet looked at his wife, who also is his assistant. At their Animal Hospital of Northwood in Safety Harbor, they had seen a couple of cats and a dog with cleft-palates.
Like humans, animals born with malformed mouths have trouble sucking. Babies can't get the milk they need. Sometimes, when they drink, the liquid goes up their nose and they drown.
The vet set down the orange cub and picked up its brother. The black and white tiger also had a hole in the top of its mouth.
"We need to take them home with us," the vet told the sanctuary director. "If we leave them here, they'll starve."
Or, he thought, their mother will realize something is wrong and kill them.
• • •
In the living room of their home, the vet and his wife made up the dog crate. Their sons, Matthew, 9, and Christopher, 7, donated a stuffed horse and leopard, so the cubs would have something to snuggle.
The boys named the black and white tiger Chester, the orange one Fabian.
All afternoon, through the evening and all night, the vet and his wife got up every two hours to thread feeding tubes into the cubs' slender throats and trickle in drops of puppy formula.
"Every animal's life," Woodman said, "has a value just like a child's."
The next morning, the vet started calling colleagues: three veterinary surgeons, a veterinary neurologist, radiologist, cardiologist and physical therapist. Who could repair a cleft palate in a tiger? He called vets at Busch Gardens and the Columbus Zoo; a tiger expert in Omaha.
Everyone said the same thing: A cleft palate? No one repairs that in animals. You need to just put those tigers to sleep.
"But I couldn't," the vet said. "I was born with a cleft palate."
He paused, fingered the long scar above his lip, thinking of the six surgeries he endured starting at 6 weeks old.
"What if someone had tried to put me to sleep because of that?"
• • •
That afternoon, Woodman started searching the Internet. It was time, he decided, to call in a specialist.
The vet called him and said, "I'm about to ask you a question you've never been asked before."
Gallant took it as a challenge. He had worked in Russia and Peru, had given up his adult practice to concentrate on kids. He had performed more than 2,000 surgeries on patients who flew to his St. Petersburg operating room from around the world.
As far as he and the vet could tell, no one had ever attempted to repair the cleft palate of a tiger.
• • •
The vet brought the tigers through a back door. Doctors and anesthesiologists, radiologists and orthodontists … seven members of the Cleft Palate Team helped evaluate the cubs.
A feeding specialist showed Susan Woodman how to use a special bottle with a slitted nipple to help pump in more protein.
"It takes forever," she said. "But they just have that need, like all babies, to suckle. So this way it's so much more soothing than a feeding tube."
For a week, the cubs seemed to thrive. They opened their milky blue eyes and mewed. At night, they curled into each other, warm against the stuffed leopard.
Then, Monday morning, Chester stopped breathing. He may have inhaled some milk and asphyxiated.
• • •
On Sunday, Gallant will attempt the first cleft palate procedure on the dead cub, so he will know what to do for Fabian, when his time comes.
In two months, when the tiger grows to about 10 pounds, but is not yet old enough to have all his teeth, Gallant will try to fix his cleft palate.
Like the vet, the anesthesiologist, the therapist -— and all the other doctors --— the pediatric surgeon is working for free.
"We don't know if he will ever be a viable tiger. In the best case scenario, he could live out his life happily in some sanctuary," Woodman said. "Is it worth it?"
The vet rubs the thick fur on Fabian's neck. The tiger mews. "What if," Woodman asked, "Someone asked that about me?"