Three orphaned cougar cubs with baby-blue eyes, fuzzy spotted coats, and much-too-big feet have briefly taken up residence behind the scenes at the Oregon Zoo until they can be moved to permanent homes in Nashville and Houston next week.
The 10-week-old cubs, all three male, were found in Washington state after their mother was illegally shot by a hunter. When wildlife officials learned the cubs were still alive, they quickly contacted Oregon Zoo keeper Michelle Schireman, who serves as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ population manager for cougars.
“I’m usually the first person fish and wildlife departments call when orphaned cubs are found in the wild,” Schireman said. “Young cougars can’t survive without their mothers, so I work with accredited zoos to find them new homes.”
Keeper Liz Bailey, keeper Michelle Schireman and veterinary technician Kelli Harvison (from left).
Rescuing the cubs took collaboration and some creative thinking, according to Schireman. After a hunter rescued the first cub and turned him over to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials used a Karelian bear dog to locate the cougars’ den, where the second cub was found. They then set live traps near the den to try to catch the third cub, but after days without any luck, a state biologist tried a new tactic: He made chirping sounds. (Mother cougars often communicate with their young using high-pitched, birdlike vocalizations.) The third cub chirped back, and the biologist was able to locate him.
“State biologists and game agents really went the extra mile to find these cubs,” Schireman said. “Thanks to good veterinary care and a diet of milk formula and meat, they are now doing really well. Each has already gained 2 pounds, and they’ll be ready to go to their new homes in about a week.”
The first two cubs to be rescued have a strong bond, so they are moving together to the Nashville Zoo. The third sibling, who survived alone in the wild for a week, is going to the Houston Zoo, which is already home to a young female cougar; the female is an orphan from Idaho previously placed by Schireman.
This September, Schireman received a Certificate of Merit in Conservation award from the National Association of Zoo Keepers. The award recognized her “outstanding work developing an orphaned animal placement program that gives assistance to state wildlife agencies and zoological institutions in placing orphaned pumas.” She has served as puma population manager for 17 years. About half the cougars currently living in U.S. zoos are orphans placed by Schireman.
Cougars –– also known as mountain lions, pumas and (in Florida) panthers –– live mostly in the western United States and Canada. They weigh from 75 to 150 pounds and have a carnivorous diet both in the wild and at the zoo. Females are either pregnant or raising cubs for the majority of their lives. After three months of gestation, two to three cubs are usually born in a litter and live with their mother for up to two years.
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.