Big cat baby boom keeps Mexican zoo busy

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico, May 10 (Reuters) - Keepers at a Mexican zoo are bottle-feeding round the clock after four big cats gave birth to nine cubs in two months, among them a rare white tiger.

Three 20-day-old Bengal tiger cubs, including the white female named Brisa, romp around a grassy enclosure while two lion cubs, a baby jaguar and three other tiger cubs frolic and chew each other's ears in a nearby wooden pen.

The arrival of six Bengals, three each from different parents, is rare and Brisa is a coup for the endangered white Bengal tiger which often fails to survive in the wild for its lack of camouflage.

The owners of family-run Zoologico de Vallarta, set deep inside virgin jungle in the Pacific coast state of Jalisco, say there is no big secret behind the rash of births -- just a propitious natural environment and lots of hands-on care.

"The zoo is magical. It's situated in such a precious area which is almost completely the animals' natural habitat, and that has a lot to do with why they procreate happily and naturally," said veterinarian Xochitl Nicteja, who is bottle-feeding the youngest cubs with milk every two hours.

"If you observe the animals they are very comfortable. You can see they enjoy their habitat, and the love and care we give them, so the rest of it is up to them."

The 350 animals at the 5-hectare (12-acre) zoo, set in 59 hectares of tropical forest filled with monkey shrieks and birdsong, range from hippos to flamingos. Many seem almost tame.

Visitors, many of them tourists from the nearby resort of Puerto Vallarta, can buy feed on their way in and get close to many of the animals.

"It's not often you get to scratch a lion's belly," said Canadian Mike Whitner, cuddling one of the cubs.

Behind him, an American woman squealed as a baby tiger clawed its way up her leg.

The Vallarta Zoo was opened in 2005 with a focus on breeding endangered Mexican species like jaguars and wolves.