Back to the Wild

Three cougar kittens get human help to survive. Their story sheds light on the cats’ status in Colorado and efforts to manage them.

By Julie Marshall
The Denver Post


The mountain lion kitten’s ears were flat against its head, black tips pointed down, twitching with every sound, from a bird’s chirping to a sudden wind blowing tall grass. The dark blue eyes scanned the landscape with a look of fear and worry.

Its nose crinkled and whiskers stiffened as it hissed at the person just beyond the 12-by-12-foot enclosure at a wildlife rehabilitation center west of Glenwood Springs.

“Boy, he hates us,” said director Nanci Limbach, adding that the reaction is a good sign for the animal’s ultimate survival.

As a licensed rehabilitator with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Limbach cares for injured and orphaned bears and mountain lions, the state’s top predators.

Last spring, her nonprofit center took in three mountain lion kittens, each about 6 months old. Limbach and others struggled to balance caring for the animals while maintaining their wild nature so they could be returned to the high country.

View the release of two cougars by the Department of Wildlife. Flash video (2:08)

Managing mountain lions in this way is controversial.

Some people see cougars as a threat to livestock and the safety of the increasing number of people and pets who live in mountain-lion country. Others embrace them as a unique part of Rocky Mountain wildlife.

Hunted to extinction in large portions of the United States, viable mountain lion populations no longer exist east of the Mississippi River, with the exception of about 50 endangered panthers in Florida. There are an estimated 3,000 to 7,000 of the cats in Colorado.

District ranger Kirk Oldham said protecting mountain lions has the same priority as providing for moose that people like to photograph, elk for people to hunt, or chorus frogs that people enjoy listening to on their back porch.

“Some may grab the attention more than others in the public eye, but they are all important,” he said. “We don’t pick and choose only the wildlife that some people like.”

In bad shape as kittens

Caretakers of the three kittens at the Colorado Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center allowed a reporter to closely monitor their progress over a six-month period.

One was the lone survivor from a scrawny group discovered in February in the foothills near Boulder. Another, starving and injured in scraps with a porcupine and a dog, was found near the ranching community of Meeker. The third was barely able to move when she was discovered in March alongside a mountain road in Basalt.

Weeks after arriving, the mountain lions had made progress. They had received medical attention – surgery to remove an embedded tooth for one, antibiotics and tick removal for another – and they didn’t smell “skunky” anymore, said veterinary technician Penny Gentile.

Human contact was kept to a minimum.

“We do as little as we have to, and we try not to be out there a lot, except to feed,” Gentile said.

All three kittens received nutritional supplements, an injection to kill worms, blood tests and X-rays. The kitten found near Basalt was infested with ticks and had chewed her tail, affecting her ability to balance.

Limbach put the animal’s chances for survival at 50 percent.

The kittens must be strong enough to survive in the wild on their own. Too weak to chew, the kitten found near Basalt started on soft cat food and graduating to licking cubes of meat. The one discovered in the foothills behind Boulder ate just about anything from the start and figured out what to do with a clucking chicken.

“Now that his instinct to kill has kicked in, nothing lives long inside that cage,” Limbach said.

Mountain lions need meat, as well as bone and hair for digestion, and the kittens each consumed 5 to 10 pounds of meat a day. The facility has a freezer with 3,700 pounds of donated elk and deer.

The animals also needed living food as a part of the rehabilitation process, Limbach said, but she doesn’t raise it.

Friends trap mice; neighbors offer fowl and other small animals that would be killed anyway. Limbach also has standing roadkill orders placed with law enforcement and other groups that patrol the roads.

“We get a lot from Highway 13 as you head to Meeker,” she said.

Eventually, the kittens would need to be fit enough to bring down a live deer.

Plans for freedom

Limbach wanted to release all three kittens at the same time, same location.

“It’s more natural than separating everyone in strange territory,” she said.

In the wild, kittens separate from their mothers between 11 and 18 months, then stick together a few weeks or months before going solo. Limbach wanted to set paws on the ground well before November hunting season and heavy snowfall so the kittens could learn the terrain and more readily find prey.

To protect people and give them the best survival odds, the animals wouldn’t be released where they were found.

“Boulder is a pretty wildlife- friendly community, and people are knowledgeable as a group … but release is not possible because of the number of people there,” wildlife manager John Koehler said.

Residents who built homes or moved into the burgeoning Basalt area are not as comfortable with cougars in their yards. Many are former urbanites who call District Wildlife Manager Kelly Wood in a panic.

“They want me to come get rid of them,” she said, “and we’re at 7,900 feet. They didn’t want me to kill them, but where exactly do they want me to take them?”

It’s a different story in Meeker, where sheep ranchers and predators go together like the Gulf Coast and hurricanes.

Generations there have spent their lives with predators and tend to take care of situations themselves, said Barry Dupire, district wildlife manager in Meeker.

Not so little anymore

By late June, the kittens weren’t requiring much attention, except for a squirt from the hose during a spate of sweltering days.

The cat found near Boulder was clearly in charge. If he hissed, the others hissed. When he growled, the others backed off – especially the tailless, underweight cat found near Basalt.

“She’s low on the totem pole,” Limbach said.

Limbach noticed another change as well. Weighing between 25 and 30 pounds when they arrived, the cats had doubled in size.

“Suddenly, these are not babies,” she said. “We have full- fledged, self-assured cats. All three of them will walk out, looking at us like, ‘We all can kill you. Do you have any clue?”‘

By mid-July, the lanky adolescents were ready to move to a taller enclosure with dens and raised platforms that would test their agility and allow climbing and jumping.

After the move, Limbach and volunteer Natalie Hert returned to investigate the smaller, empty cage.

On the floor was a pile of white feathers and a deer leg with sparse tufts of fuzz and one tiny black hoof.

Limbach glanced at Hert.

“Scary, isn’t it?”

A perfect new home

As summer days turned toward fall, wildlife manager Oldham found suitable land for the cats’ release in Middle Park. Deer herds are abundant there year-round and there is plenty of water and no hint of urban life.

The male cats – the dark brown spots of youth having faded within golden fur – stand a good chance at making it, Limbach said.

But the cat found near Basalt won’t be released. She needs more time to build strength in her hindquarters. Limbach is confident she will be released in the spring.

On a cool fall morning, two release boxes were placed on the flatbed of a truck, covered in shade tarps.

Inside, the lions were eerily quiet. Their ears had been tagged to ID them in the event they one day reappear as hunters’ quarry or turn up dead from some other cause. They had not been tranquilized.

“We always want them to go out under their own power,” Oldham said.

After a bumpy ride along a dirt trail that wound through mountains of shimmering gold aspen, the truck stopped at a vista above 9,000 feet.

The heavy plywood and aluminum boxes were lowered to the grass. Sliding panel doors faced toward a dense forest.

Oldham joined Limbach and volunteer Hert opposite the doors, while two colleagues stood in the back of the truck, shotguns ready. Their weapons were loaded with rubber buckshot – a bit of stinging incentive for the lions to flee.

The doors slid open.


“They’re asleep,” Limbach joked.

Hert drummed a steady beat on top of one box and gave it a kick. The lion found near Boulder bolted from inside.

Shotgun blasts sent him scurrying to the top of a nearby hill.

The other cat hadn’t budged.

Oldham tilted the box to the side and out it went, pausing briefly on the hillside before running off in the same direction as the other cat.

Limbach grinned over two less mouths to feed.

She worried, however, as she always does, whether the cougars would survive.

“It would be nice to know they made it through the winter,” Limbach said, looking off into the distance.

Ideally, she said, she would like to know that they thrived for at least a couple of years – long enough to father a new generation.


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