KIEV, Ukraine – A beautiful white tiger that became a symbol of Yulia Tymoshenko's presidential campaign has returned to the spotlight by giving birth to four cubs, including a rare albino one.
Activists hope the birth of the cubs in a zoo on Sunday will lift the spirits of Tymoshenko since she is now in prison and she had used the tigress, Tigryulia, as a symbol of ferocious resolve.
For nearly three weeks, Tymoshenko was on a hunger strike after prison officials allegedly beat her, and she ended it on Wednesday when a German doctor was allowed to supervise her treatment for severe back pain at the clinic in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where her prison is located.
"These are really very rare tigers," said Oleh Zubkov, head of Ukraine's biggest zoo, where Tigryulia is kept in the Black Sea resort city Yalta. "All the zoos in Ukraine and in the world dream of having such tigers born."
Since Tigryulia, a 3-year-old white Bengal tiger, successfully delivered the cubs she has been reluctant to nurse them, apparently distracted by zoo visitors and her partner, a 6-year-old tiger from France named Patrice. Zoo workers are helping out by nursing the cubs from bottles.
Zubkov, whose wife works at the zoo, said she "has completely disappeared from my life — she feeds them every two hours."
Tigryulia's path to fame started in the summer of 2009, when the then 4-month-old tiger was bought at a Swiss zoo and presented to Tymoshenko, the charismatic Orange Revolution heroine, at a children's festival.
Tymoshenko, who then served as prime minister and was running for president, fell in love with the tiger and made the animal a key image of her campaign, with posters of Tymoshenko tenderly holding Tigryulia dotting the country. Afterward, Tigryulia was placed in the Yalta zoo and a Tymoshenko ally brought in the Bengal tiger, Patrice, from France to keep her company, but the two didn't hit it off at first.
"Both Tigryulia and Patrice have very difficult personalities — to put it mildly," Zubkov said. "At first we were afraid they would simply kill each other."
Zoo workers separated the tigers by a metal fence, allowing them only to sniff each other, then moved them closer together. Finally the tigers got used to being in the same enclosure and they mated.
But as Tigryulia's star rose, Tymoshenko became much less fortunate.
She lost the 2010 presidential election to her longtime foe, the Orange Revolution nemesis President Viktor Yanukovych, and was sentenced to seven years in prison in October on charges of abuse of office. The trial was condemned by the West as politically motivated.
Yanukovych has resisted strong pressure from the European Union and the United States to release Tymoshenko, and she has become the target of new charges and investigations.
Zubkov said the zoo has launched a contest to name the four cubs, but there is one rule: each name must contain the sound "Yu," like Tymoshenko's first name.
In the meantime, he has sent photographs of Tigryulia and her cubs to Tymoshenko in prison.
The zoo hopes Tymoshenko "will enjoy these photos at such a difficult period of her life and that they will cheer her up," Zubkov said.