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Protecting Females and Kittens

Cougars are one of the extremely few animals that can be legally hunted while they are raising dependent young, unlike deer, elk, and antelope.

Kittens, Myths, Zoos, Sanctuaries, Game Farms

The Cougar Fund suggests that state game agencies adopt a strategy for managing cougars that protects females and kittens. For female cougars, parenting is a solitary task with endless responsibilities. Cougars are devoted mothers; they feed, protect, and teach their young the hunting skills they will need later in Life. Cougar kittens stay with their mothers anywhere from eighteen to twenty-four months. It is in this time that kittens learn proper prey identification and hunting skills.

Female cougars spend seventy-three percent of their adult lives either pregnant or raising dependent young. For this reason, this reproductive segment of the population is extremely vulnerable. If hunters are not selective and able to properly identify the sex of a cat, there is high potential to orphan kittens. These kittens often end up starving to death or dying from exposure. Those that do survive often get into trouble. Not having proper prey identification skills and lacking the necessary hunting skills, these young cats may end up preying on easy targets such as livestock or pets.

Nearly every state protects the lives of female cougars with spotted kittens at their side. This policy is inadequate since mother cougars rarely travel or hunt with spotted kitten at their side. A hunter would rarely encounter this scenario. This policy fails to protect females with kittens over three months old - the age when spots begin to fade.

Few states track kitten mortality and more and more game agencies find themselves in a position of needing to place orphaned kittens in a zoo or sanctuary setting. Helping hunters identify the sex of cat is a simple and easy way to better protect cougar populations and avoid the orphaning and death of young cougars.

An Orphaned Kitten's Journey

By: Penny Maldonado

Image of kitten two

Jackson Hole, a place where people who are wild about snow struggle to make a living and their wild cousins struggle simply to live through the cold dark months.

It has been a long, deep winter. A paradox of delight at the 'best powder ever' and despair as news of three known starvation related cougar moralities and an illegal matriarch kill surfaced within our relatively small geographic area.

Thus, the scene was set for the seemingly positive news of a rescue and placement operation when three cougar kittens were left orphaned and wandered into residential Wilson in mid-March.

It doesn't take much for wildlife savvy Jacksonites to notice cougar kittens in their backyards, and soon Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials were on their way to investigate. Two kittens were captured together and transported to the Sybille Research Facility in Wheatland, WY before their more elusive sibling was located and secured.

"This is the kind of story that we come to expect, living as we do, 'on the edge of wildness,' but it is not necessarily one with the archetypal 'happy ending'..."

In Wyoming, as in most states, the state run Game and Fish Agency has jurisdiction over that state’s wildlife unless it is a migratory bird or an endangered species, in which case USFWS has authority. While the decision for what to do is exclusively theirs, the staff at the Game and Fish Office in Jackson once again extended the hand of respect and cooperation to the Cougar Fund by seeking the Cougar Fund’s input in finding the best possible situation for the orphans. By coincidence, the Chahinkapa Zoo in North Dakota had recently contacted the Cougar Fund requesting leads about possible orphans because of the death of its male cougar. Too young to survive by themselves and too habituated to people by their short sojourn around the Wilson township to be good candidates for rehabilitation, after establishing that this facility met Game and Fish requirements it became clear that the next stop for the trio after Wheatland would be the zoo in North Dakota.

This is the kind of story that we have come to expect, living as we do, 'on the edge of wildness', but it is not necessarily one with the archetypal “happy ending” as no one would ever argue that captivity is the preferred option for any wild creature.

When I first started to research the subject, the idea was to explore what options, if any, existed as destinations for the cougar orphans, to identify the hierarchy of decision making the who, why and where to that seals their fate, and to give you an idea of what life in the care of humans was going to be like. I discovered that the task was not going to be nearly as straightforward as it seemed. What follows is an attempt to put into some perspective the complex and often chaotic interweaving of systems, regulations, or lack thereof, and options that form an indefatigable maze in the search for facts about wild animal captivity in America today.

The scope of the captivity dilemma is so vast, a brief history and some statistics may help. The three Wilson kittens will actually be joining the approximately ten to fifteen thousand great cats living in captivity in the US today. This figure is divided between many types of environments, including zoos, sanctuaries, preserves, research facilities, private wildlife centers, the entertainment industry, rehabilitation facilities and in home pet ownership.

You may already be asking, “Where did all these animals come from?” Well, to cut a long story short we really have to go back as far as the Romans as an example of mans' desire to intimidate and entertain by caging wild cats as a symbol of status and power. Over the centuries the accumulation of…


……exotic animals increased and evolved through menageries, zoological gardens to zoos, circuses, roadside exhibits, mega dollar Vegas-style entertainment, and theme parks.

The unregulated growth of personal ownership of big cats often leads to tragedy as people realize too late that the cute kitten they purchased over the internet for the same price as a pedigreed dog grows up, eats twelve pounds of meat per day, destroys their house, attacks their neighbor’s toddler and is instinctively feral. A number of groups and membership associations that support and politically lobby for the right to private ownership of wild fields are available to offer their expertise. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how professional and accurate and well-researched these organizations are, or however much they advocate and expound the ideal of responsible wild animal ownership—they cannot deny or prevent the number of cases where a failed pet, usually a hungry rambunctious juvenile, has no home.

There has been an increase in a genre know as “edutainment” where supposedly tamed cats are taken to public venues where they can interact—for a fee—and for photo purposes with the public. This is apparently a chance to teach people about the plight of the planet.

It has been weeks since I started to explore the possibilities for the orphaned kittens now that they have entered captivity in America. The Cougar Fund thought this would be a fairly simple comparison between the choices of zoos and sanctuaries as destinations. What I discovered was an alarming nationwide lack of cohesive regulation between federal and state law that allows the existence of a plethora of facilities from back yard “pseudo-sanctuaries” to hunting havens that call themselves sanctuaries. There is not a single guideline that designates a facility as an appropriate home. The membership organizations (AZA, ASA, TAOS) are just that, organizations where anyone can buy a membership and are not federally or state regulated. These groups only recourse to a facility they don’t approve of is withdrawal of their “sticker” and, to be honest how many people does that really turn around at the gate?

Each agency that may become responsible for finding a home for a wild animal has its own method of selection. The Wyoming Game and Fish relies on their state vet. USFWS lets their agents decide through their knowledge and networking of facilities among themselves and other agents. Sanctuary directors that I spoke with said it is largely a matter of experience. It’s what you DON’T see. Is the facility closed off? Is it run down? Do administrators make excuses? How are the conditions of the animals? Is there an independent board of directors? Basically there is no substitute for having someone visit the facility before a recommendation to place an animal. The danger of the system as it stands is that once an animal enters in it can conceivably end up anywhere from a zoo to a canned hunt.

I can think of no better ending than a quote from the Cougar Fund’s own board member Marc Bekoff who on Earth Day 2008, told the Tallahassee Democrat “There’s a huge paradigm shift happening. Most people don’t want to see animals in cages now. They are more demanding of zoos in terms of ethical standards. That more sanctuaries are springing up instead of roadside zoos is a good thing. But sanctuaries vary just like zoos. There are good sanctuaries and bad sanctuaries. The good ones give the animals the very very best they can.”