11/10/2008 at 01:00 AM EST
A chimp plays surrogate mom to a couple of tiger cubs—and somewhere, Walt Disney sees dollar signs. But Anjana, a 2 1/2-year-old chimp, just sees love. Every day, she can't wait to scoop up the 10-week-old cubs named Mitra and Shiva, kiss them, let them crawl all over her and then, after playtime has worn everyone down, feed them formula from a bottle. "When she first sees them she screams, gets goofy and lets out a laugh," says Dr. Bhagavan Antle, director of an animal sanctuary, the Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (TIGERS), in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where Anjana met the cubs. "Then she gets serious."
The improbable love story began in August when Hurricane Hanna cut a swath through the refuge. As rain and wind buffeted her shelter, Sukino, a white tiger, was suckling her two cubs. But the shelter was getting drenched and Antle reluctantly removed the fragile newborns, leaving the mother, and placed them in the care of one of his trainers, China York, in a drier, warmer building.
And that's where a beautiful friendship was born. Anjana "hangs out with me and watches what I'm doing," York, 27, says. So when the trainer began feeding the cubs, Anjana did the same. "You know, monkey see, monkey do," says York.
Anjana and the cubs have moved to a Miami park for the winter. The trio can't last forever—in a few months the cubs' bites will grow stronger and may provoke the powerful Anjana to unintentionally harm them; for now they're just happy to romp together. "It's really a joy to watch," says York.