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ABONY, Hungary (Reuters Life!) - As a child, Hungarian zookeeper and owner Tibor Toth dreamed of having lots of animals around him and his life was forever changed the day he petted a tiger cub.
Over the past 15 years he has slowly fulfilled his dream.
He owns a small zoo in the town of Abony, 90 km east of the Hungarian capital of Budapest, which has gained fame for taming lions and tigers and which is now raising three female Siberian tiger cubs.
The cubs were born near Hamburg in Germany, but came to Hungary when they were only two and a half weeks old, after their mother became ill and could not feed them anymore.
They are six weeks old now and growing fast, fed on goats' milk and special tiger food.
Toth, 49, said he was inspired by Austrian-born naturalist and wildlife preservationist Joy Adamson, who in her book "Born Free" told the story of how she and her husband raised a lion cub and trained it to fend for itself. The famous cub named Elsa was later released back into the wild.
"Once I got hold of this book by Joy Adamson, where she writes about the loyalty of the lions and raising lions...and I was captivated by this and I really wished I had animals around me like she did," Toth told Reuters.
"But Africa is very far away."
So in the middle of the 1990s, only a few years after the collapse of communism, Toth decided to start building his zoo.
He got a plot of land from the town and his zoo, which at the start had only a few animals, had more than 60,000 visitors last year. It is financed from entry fees and personal donations, without any support from the state.
Toth says the tiger cubs will stay in the zoo and he even hopes to breed tigers, so the cubs will soon get company.
"We will bring a male tiger for them and then we will have lots of small Hungarian tigers," he said.
The liveliest of the three cubs has been named after the Russian river Ussuri, while the other two have more girlish names: Reika and Nadinka.
Reporting by Krisztina Than, editing by Paul Casciato