On Tuesday morning, October 11, 2005, I received a call from the Department of Idaho Fish & Game asking if I would be able to take two Cougar kittens whose mother had been shot.
I agreed and advised that I would need to get a pen ready. Since it was October, I wasn’t sure how big the cubs would be, but I was sure that one of my largest dog carriers would be more than adequate and comfortable for the two of them until they were transferred to a secure outdoor enclosure the following day.
Fish & Game Officer Rob Brizee arrived around 4:30pm carrying two cougar cubs by the scruff who couldn’t have weighted more than a pound a piece. I couldn’t believe my eyes at their size. I had expected something in the neighborhood of 4 months-old cubs give or take a couple of weeks. I had no idea that Cougar cubs are often born late September/early October.
These appeared to be very young and realizing they couldn’t possibly be kept outside. I immediately fixed a much smaller, heated carrier for them inside the house.
There was a male and female and I estimated them at barely two weeks of age. The female still had a slight scabbing on her umbilicus. Their eyes were very blurry and unfocused, my guess was they hadn’t been open more than 2-3 days. They could not stand and could barely crawl. Wednesday, the 12th Fish & Game notified me that there was a third kitten, but it was in Weiser and needed to be picked up. On Friday, October 14th, Fish & Game Officer Jon Rachael brought me the missing third sibling. It was in excellent shape, a male, the largest of the three and had the darkest coat.
He was picked up in the Weiser area where he had been left on the doorstep of a hound hunter.
Another reason I was sure they were so young was due to the fact I that none of them had even a sign of an incisor under the skin yet. I had them a week before both males showed the first indication of ‘about to emerge’ incisors on 10/18/. By 10/24, all three kitten’s incisors had broken through their bottom jaw.
I couldn’t get over the fact that even though it was a deer hunter that shot their mother; it was also Mountain Lion season (8/30 – 2/16 or 3/31, depending on the hunting unit). The Idaho Fish & Game is aware that cougars may give birth in late fall, yet still allow a hunting season. Since hounds can be used after 10/1 in most units, I find it hard to believe that many kittens/cubs aren’t ravaged by dogs each season. It would be doubtful that a mother cougar, terrified after being chased and treed by dogs, would immediately return to her brood even with the known danger in the area. She doesn’t want her cubs discovered. This leaves them vulnerable to predators, man and dogs alike. It is illegal to take spotted young or a female accompanied by young. The babies I had could barely crawl, therefore how would a hunter know if a Cougar had babies, much less be able to determine the sex? It would seem to me that in pursuing a big cat like that; the hunt wouldn’t allow for the luxury of checking its hind end that carefully.
After being in receipt of these cubs for only a few days, I was informed by the Dep’t. of Fish & Game, that cougars could not be hehabilitated and released in Idaho. It was the department’s policy that they be euthanized or go to an AZA (American Zoological Assn.) facility.
When I asked if I could find a sanctuary for the cats instead of their future being one of those two alternatives, I was told that it must be AZA approved facility. I got in touch with Tim Cochnauer, a retired Fish & Game Officer who has his own foundation, Wild Animal Rehabilitation of Idaho, Inc. He suggested a couple of wildlife sanctuaries that may be able to help. I knew that no matter what happened; I couldn’t and wouldn’t allow them to end up in the ‘zoo trade’. Officer Rachael informed me that two to four zoos had already expressed an interest in them. That interest would become non-existent if the kittens were neutered prior to their receiving them. It would definitely guarantee that after the novelty of their age wore off for display purposed; they would be open to the Class B animal trade. Here they would be split up, sold or bartered to anyone holding a permit from the USDA and willing to pay the price (e.g. circuses, road-side zoos, canned hunts, used for dog training, urine used for scent, etc.). I was horrified at the prospect. As a rule, most zoos aren’t interested in the majority of big cats available in the trade unless they are quite exotic and rare. Most of the cats are just too common for the zoo trade. Big cats are often declawed, defanged, and/or come from an abusive situation. There are no places for them all.
It was quite late at night when I went online to check out the sanctuaries. the first website I logged onto was called Big Cat Rescue (BCR) in Tampa, Florida. I couldn’t find anywhere that they were AZA approved, but they were sanctioned by TAOS, The Association of Sanctuaries, which actually has higher standards (for the animals in their care) than the AZA. By total accident, due my ineptness on computers, my introduction to their website was a shore slide show, entitled Born to be Free.
It touched a nerve deep so deep inside that I thought a humane death would be kinder than any alternative. Was living life in a cage, better than no life at all? This slideshow can be seen on the Big Cat Rescue website.
My flicker of hope was becoming dimmer, but I sent an email explaining my needs and also asking them, perfect strangers, if possibly, death may be more humane. I was quite undone at what I’d read, even though I have known for years that big cats are a ‘dime a dozen’. I promptly went to bed, depressed and my mind racing as to the ‘right’ thing to do. I would contact other sanctuaries in the morning when I wasn’t so upset. The next day I received a telephone call from Scott Lope, Operations Manager of Big Cat Rescue and we lamented the terrible fate of big cats. He told me that the Board of Directors just happened to be meeting later that day and he would pass on my information to the president and founder, Carole Baskin. He wanted me to be sure I understood not to get my hopes up, as they were at capacity already and probably would not be able to help. This was October and they had already turned away over 100 cats since the beginning of the year. Needless to say, this didn’t encourage me. Within several hours I received an email from Ms. Baskin commiserating with my predicament, but supporting my concerns for their future of possible life of confinement. Her compassion for the situation , both the cubs and mine, was sincere however she appeared reluctant to add even more cats to their current population of 150.
Being young and motherless, these ‘adorable’ Cougar cubs could possibly in themselves along with BCR’s national influence bring even more attention to the public in denouncing the ‘big cat trade’. After several emails and phone calls between here and Tampa, BCR agreed to take the cubs and the arrangements for the transfer started falling in place. Fish and game permits between the two states had to take place. The cubs needed a health certificate from a veterinarian and transportation between Boise and Florida needed to be worked out.
Big Cat Rescue quickly made arrangements for the cubs to be picked up by two BCR people and two photographers who would be flying to Boise on October 30th and leaving at 4:30 am the following morning with the cubs. Southwest Airlines provided 6 free seats in coach, two of which were for the three cubs.
I realized that it was October 30, the BCR people were arriving that night and the cats were leaving at 4:30 the next morning and I didn’t have one photo of myself with these babies. My husband Roger took some photos of the last feeding they would receive from me.
You can see the video of Big Cat Rescue arriving at the Boise airport, coming to my home and then leaving a few hours later to arrive back in Tampa to waiting paparazzi.
Photos below are in Tampa Mid-To-Late November
IDAHO COUGAR CUBS Grow up at Big Cat Rescue – Tampa, Fl.
Reprinted from the Fall 2006, The Big Cat Times, Newsletter of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida
It’s hard for BCR’s Operational Manage, Scott Lope to believe that it has been almost a year since he received a phone call from a wildlife rehabilitator in Idaho. Mady Rothchild told him of a tragic story about a female Cougar who was killed by a hunter and her three tiny orphaned cubs. Her request to Big Cat Rescue was simple, she wanted the sanctuary to provide a home for these babies. She new that BCR did not breed animals and that staff and volunteers would do their best to keep them together even into adulthood. As many of you know, BCR was able to provide a home for these orphans thanks to Southwest Airlines and generous support from its donors.
As their first birthday approaches, Lope gives a first hand account of their progress so far.
The female cub named Artemis was only three pounds and the males, Orion and Ares, were only four pounds when they first arrived at BCR. Artemis is now 70 pounds, Orion 78 pounds and Ares a whopping 80 pounds.
The cubs are now eating aabout four pounds of food each day consisting of beef, chicken and a commercially prepared carnivore diet containing lots of vitamins and calcium for their rapidly growing bones and teeth!
The cubs have all learned to climb trees and can be found peering out from the top of branches any time a lawn mower goes by…
They are incredible swimmers and divers, especially Artemis, who seems to be more Otter than Mountain Lion when she chases the goldfish around in her pond. All three love the water and every night as they rush over for their dinner they are soaking wet.
They all still get along very well and have very distinct and different purrrsonalities. Ares is the most reserved, the strong silent type. Artemis is still known as “Baby” and she remains a spoiled rotten “Daddy’s Girl”! She is easily the most mischievous of the group and always the instigator. Orion is the most outgoing, first to chirp a “hello” to friends and visitors. Orion is also the class clown, always goofing around, excerpt at feeding time when he spits and growls at his puzzled siblings if they get too close to his dinner.
All three have been spayed and neutered and seem to be in great health. Their permanent home should be completed in time for a wonderful birthday move in. (It was completed and cats moved in early October 2006)
The enclosure covers about two-and-a-half acres and has a huge common area containing massive vertical and horizontal climbing logs and of course a brand new swimming pond. The Cat-a-tat is large enough for the three to run at tip speed and has separate den areas for each cub, if they want a little “alone time”.
“To watch these cougars grow and thrive is very bitter sweet for me. Their story has touched many lives and really opened a lot of eyes about hunting and habitat loss. Even though I know that these cubs receive the best of care and are very much loved, I know in my heart that they deserve more; they deserve to be free” Lope says.