Zoo finds home for 5-week-old cougar orphan

April 28, 2017 - 2:54pm

A tiny, orphaned cougar cub — with a fuzzy, spotted coat, baby-blue eyes and a surprisingly big voice — has briefly taken up residence behind the scenes at the Oregon Zoo’s veterinary medical center.

The cub, described as “loud and rambunctious” by zoo vet staff, was rescued this week by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers, after a landslide separated the young cougar from its mother. After a short stopover in Portland, the cub will be headed to a new permanent home at the Minnesota Zoo.

“It was the victim of a landslide that occurred on Sunday in Pend Oreille County,” said Rich Beausoleil, WDFW bear and cougar specialist. “A member of the public found it the day after in the mud and called WDFW.”

The cub — a 5-week-old male weighing around just 4 pounds — wouldn’t stand a chance alone in the wild, so Beausoleil contacted Oregon Zoo keeper Michelle Schireman, who serves as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species coordinator for cougars.

“Without a mother, young cougars can’t survive on their own in the wild, so I work to find them good homes,” Schireman said. “We would rather they grow up with their moms, but when that’s not an option we want them to have the best lives possible.”

As AZA species coordinator, Schireman has found homes for more than 120 cougar cubs in zoos around the country. Most of the cougars currently living in U.S. zoos are orphans she has placed. Usually, though, she never sees the cats she helps. 

“In most cases, we try to arrange for orphaned cubs to go directly to their new homes,” Schireman said. “But in special situations, and depending on whether we have space, we sometimes take care of them at the zoo until their health has stabilized. It’s a lot to ask of our staff, but everyone here is incredibly dedicated to helping wildlife. Our vet staff and keepers have been taking shifts to make sure this little guy receives around-the-clock care with feedings every four hours.” 

Cougars — also known as mountain lions, pumas and (in Florida) panthers — range throughout southwest Canada, the western United States and South America. With the exception of the Florida panthers, cougars are not listed as endangered, but they do face many challenges in other parts of the country due to human encroachment and habitat destruction.

Metro, the regional government that operates the Oregon Zoo, has preserved and restored key habitat for cougars through its voter-supported natural areas program, which helps provide the healthy ecosystem needed for wildlife to thrive. While cougars are unlikely to be seen in most Metro natural areas, their tracks have occasionally been seen in places such as Oxbow Regional Park and the Clear Creek Natural Area.