A mountain lion kitten – with killer blue eyes, but too young and weak to prey on anything larger than a butterfly – is getting a one-way ticket from Eastern Washington to a Pennsylvania zoo.
A Kettle Falls homeowner found the 3-week-old male kitten dehydrated and malnourished on the front porch.
State Fish and Wildlife officers responded to the homeowner’s call and searched the area for signs of the mother mountain lion, but didn’t find her, said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman.
The kitten was brought to wildlife rehabilitators at Mt. Spokane Veterinary Hospital for treatment.
The very-young cougar will survive with a lot of attention from certified wildlife rehabilitators, but it won’t be returned to the wild, Luers said.
“You just don’t rehabilitate an apex predator that’s become fixed on people and release it back into the wild,” she said. “The odds that it would eventually have contact with people or pets are too high.”
With no fires in the area to offer an easy answer to the cause of the kitten’s separation from its mother, department cougar specialist Rich Beausoleil had three theories:
• Someone found the den and took the kitten while Mom was out hunting.
• Mom was killed by a vehicle.
• Mom was illegally shot (cougar hunting seasons are closed).
“At three weeks, there should not have been any kitten wanderings away from the den,” he said.
Cougars can mate year-round, but breeding is more common in winter and early spring with most kittens being born earlier in the summer. Litters usually include two kittens, but they range from one to four.
Cougar kittens begin nursing within minutes after birth. By two weeks, their eyes have opened and they’re able to walk.
By three weeks, they begin awkwardly exploring their den, which could be a rock overhang, brushy thicket or pile of boulders.
While suckling her young, the mother must occasionally leave the den to hunt. These are the most vulnerable periods for the kittens, which stay with their mothers for 12-19 months.
The two most common natural causes of cougar deaths are being killed by other cougars or by prey during an attack, Beausoleil said.
“Humans, through hunting and vehicle collisions, are probably the main source of mortality among cougars,” he said.
In the 12 years working with cougars in Washington, Beausoleil said about 32 orphaned kittens from Washington have been placed in zoos across the United States.
Department officials have arranged for the Kettle Falls kitten to be transported to ZooAmerica in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Beausoleil said the agency looks for American Zoological Association accredited zoos, which he calls “the best of the best, with superior animal care including on-site vet care and natural enclosures with a lot of time spent on stimulation so they don’t get bored.”
“Education is important at AZA zoos, which have on-site staff to teach visitors about the natural history of these critters.”