Cougars get predatory with the help of a new enrichment device

November 5, 2013 - 9:19am

Oregon Zoo's creative 'cat toy' helps cougars stay fit

For the feline-inclined, it's a familiar scene: the twitching tail, the folded-back ears and then ... the pounce.

Watching a cat on the hunt is always exhilarating, but especially when the cat weighs 150 pounds. At the Oregon Zoo, a new device — which involves a zipline, a spring and a frozen salmon — is helping keep cougars Paiute and Chinook fit by bringing out their explosive predatory instincts.

Interchangeably nicknamed the Salmon Slinger, Cougarciser or just spring toy, the contraption — conceived by zoo cougar keeper Michelle Schireman — was designed to mentally stimulate the big cats while encouraging them to work for their food as they would in the wild.

"Our challenge was to give them a meal that would put up some resistance."

—Michelle Schireman, keeper

"Cougars are apex predators in the Pacific Northwest," said keeper Michelle Schireman. "In the wild, there's no other animal that hunts for them. Our challenge was to give them a meal that would put up some resistance."

To do that, Schireman attaches a frozen salmon — or some other meaty treat — to a spring-loaded device tethered to a zipline in the cougar habitat. Once the cats are let in, they immediately pounce and will typically bat, bite and pull the salmon until it breaks free.

"Their focus and intensity can be intimidating," Schireman said. "When you see their claws gripping the fish with every muscle flexing to pull it off, you realize how powerful these predators are."

Keepers say Chinook — the female, and the more dominant of the two — usually has first go at the zipline. But Paiute is more of a fish-lover, and will usually pull at the salmon until it comes down, sometimes working at it for more than an hour and a half.

Schireman conceived of the idea after seeing ziplines and spring toys used at other zoos.

"As far as I know, no other zoo has combined the two," she said.

The zipline is the most recent addition to a creative enrichment schedule meant to change up the cats' routines and keep their surroundings interesting. Keepers also hide food under logs and in trees, spray animal scents and even walk goats through the habitat (when the cougars are not in it) to leave "game trails."

Both Paiute and Chinook were orphaned at an early age. Paiute came to the zoo from Idaho after his mother had been shot; Chinook's mother was hit by a car near Sequim, Wash. Because cougar cubs are taught by their mothers to hunt, they typically will starve if left on their own. As the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' species coordinator for cougars, Schireman has placed more than 70 cougar cubs in zoos around the country.

To ensure there are enough homes for discovered cubs, AZA-accredited zoos are not presently breeding cougars.

For Schireman, the big cats offer visitors a glimpse of a rarely seen Northwest carnivore and a take-home lesson.

"Their similarity to housecats is something visitors really connect with," Schireman said. "The zipline is a good reminder that all animals need physical activity and mental stimulation. Cats that get exercise are less likely to be overweight and tend to live longer, healthier lives."