Orphaned cougar finds new family

Rich Beausoleil, a bear and cougar specialist with Washington State Fish & Wildlife, and his dog Cash pose with a tranquilized cougar that was outfitted with a Global Positioning Satellite collar so its movements could be recorded after release.

Rich Beausoleil, a bear and cougar specialist with Washington State Fish & Wildlife, and his dog Cash pose with a tranquilized cougar that was outfitted with a Global Positioning Satellite collar so its movements could be recorded after release. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

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DAYTON — He wouldn’t survive on his own.

Rich Beausoleil was sure of it.

That’s why on Jan. 20, the bear and cougar specialist with Washington State Fish & Wildlife found himself hiking terrain along the Tucannon River north of Dayton to a spot where the day before the carcass of the young cougar cub’s mother was found.

“No. They can’t live on their own, not till they are a minimum of 8 months. And even then it’s 50-50,” Beausoleil said 10 days after that hike while at his Wenatchee office.

He remembered that day and some of the items he brought along: a tarp, a net, a tranquilizer gun, a bear trap and Cash, his 8-year-old Karelian bear dog.

The day before his trip, Columbia County Fish & Wildlife officer Jim Nelson hiked the same terrain looking for a dead cougar that had been reported by a local resident.

“I met him (the resident) on scene and then hiked up to the kill site. Once there, the kitten immediately ran from the scene and we did not see it again,” Nelson recalled.

It was only a glimpse but enough to call in Beausoleil and Cash, Fish & Wildlife’s Eastern Washington bear and cougar tracking team.

“That cougar made 29 that we have done in the last 10 years,” Beausoleil said.

Not a single one of the 29 cougars had to be euthanized. Beausoleil noted every one of them was given a home in a facility sanctioned with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, thus ensuring proper enclosures, regular health monitoring and a longer life.

“Generally anywhere from 15 to 18 years is average life span in captivity and 8 to 10 in the wild,” said Michelle Schireman, North America zoo keeper for the Oregon Zoo and a volunteer with the association. She would be the woman Beausoleil would eventually call once he and Cash caught the cub.

In addition to placing orphaned cubs, Schireman said the association also keeps records of zoo animals that go back to the 1700s. Those records include 130 cougars currently living in their accredited zoos, including the David Traylor Zoo in Emporia, Kan.

At about the same time that a little mountain lion cub was hunkering down in the cold of the Blues, 1,246 miles away in Emporia, Zoo Director Lisa Keith was dealing with a media release detailing the failing heart of their beloved exhibit cougar known as Sampson.

Sixteen years earlier, the cougar loved by the community of Emporia was found by a Wyoming rancher abandoned along the road. He was severely dehydrated but took well to bottle feeding. He eventually took over as one of the main attractions at the zoo.

“We are a very small zoo. We are eight acres here. So Sampson, as far as cats go, he is the largest cat we have here. So he quickly, from the beginning, became the icon of the zoo,” Keith said, adding that Sampson seemed to like the attention. “He always wanted to be at the front of the exhibit to watch people go by, just a very entertaining personality.”

In addition to informing the public, Keith had also been keeping the Association of Zoos and Aquariums up-to-date on Sampson’s condition, information that would be a key factor in the life of an orphaned cub from Southeastern Washington.

Searching for an orphan

Beausoleil took Cash to the spot where the carcass of the mother cougar was recovered. They went up a canyon that drained into the Tucannon and found plenty of cub tracks but no fresh scent for Cash to follow. So they went back and tracked up another canyon. They found more tracks, and then Cash caught the scent. A few minutes later the cub was treed. All together, it took 45 minutes.

Then came the real work. Somebody was going to have to climb that tree and get the cub down. Beausoleil said that’s what normally happens. But he brought the net just in case.

“It wasn’t even that big of a tree.” Beausoleil estimated it at 20 feet.

He shot a tranquilizer dart into the cub and waited underneath with the net. As expected, the cub fell asleep in the tree.

So Beausoleil climbed up with his tarp, lowered the cat to the ground, hauled him back to the rig, put him in a bear cage trap and headed back to Wenatchee.

The cub looked to be about 15 weeks old and weighed 20 pounds.

“He was in great shape being only a day without mom,” Beausoleil said.

A few weeks earlier, Beausoleil had entered all the department’s recovered cougars for the last 10 years on a spreadsheet, along with their current zoo locations and the average viewerships per day.

“Sixteen million people have seen these cougar kittens that we placed around the country. And I think that has done a whole lot of education,” he said.

Finding a new home

With the cub in the bear trap, it was time to call Schireman to see if she could find him a home.

“We were aware of the situation in Emporia. And they had the facility to do the quarantine there,” Schireman said.

So she made the call to the David Traylor Zoo and officials their agreed to take him.

But how to get the cub there?

A break in the weather is what Schireman needed before she could arrange to fly the cub to Kansas City, Kan.

The following weekend, the weather warmed up a bit. But there was a problem. Alaska Airlines doesn’t ship animals on weekends. So arrangements were made to fly the cub on Monday, Jan. 27, via SeaTac to Kansas City.

“He kind of hissed a little bit because when you show up at the cargo place, there are trucks moving around and beeping,” Beausoleil said.

At 20 pounds, the cub was able to be put into a modified dog crate to ship. The modifications included bolting the crate shut, adding just a little food and water and securing burlap over all the openings to protect people from the cat. The burlap also protects the cat from people ogling or poking at the cub and possibly losing a finger, Beausoleil said.

“We were really nervous the day of the flight,” Schireman added. “That is why Alaska Airlines is great because we could watch the icon of the plane in flight. And I would text Rich ‘He is over Boise now.’”

The cub would spend about five to six hours in the air, not counting layovers. Keith picked him up at the airport and took him to the zoo’s quarantine facility. But the cub did not immediately step out into his new world.

“He was quite scared and unsure of his new surroundings and chose to stay within his crate with the door open until the next morning when he finally decided to emerge and explore the new area,” Keith said.

Looking for a name

Zoo officials announced on Feb. 3 the arrival of their new cub from the Blue Mountains of Washington and said the community would be asked to help name him.

“He has quickly made himself at home by entertaining the keepers with his acrobatic stunts,” Keith said, referring to jumping up and down from his deck, rolling over and swatting at a ball. “He is quite a character.”

Four days later on Friday, zoo officials found themselves making another public announcement.

“Sampson has left very large paw prints on the hearts of many and he will be greatly missed,” Keith said in a media release that explained Sampson was euthanized because of his declining physical condition.

Maybe one day a little cougar cub from the Blues will be able to fill those paw prints.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

Comments

mwood 10 months, 1 week ago

Truly enjoyed this story. Well done to all involved.

1

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