Two mountain lion kittens found orphaned in January in southeast Idaho were moved earlier this month to a zoo in the mountains of North Carolina. After a private jet ride across the country paid for by a private donor, the young mountain lions arrived at their new home, Grandfather Mountain, a small zoo with a focus on native wildlife housed in natural habitats. The Grandfather Mountain facility provides interpretive programs with a strong conservation message to thousands of visitors every year.
In early January 2016, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers received calls about three young mountain lions hanging around homes in the rural area of Cleveland, Idaho, located approximately 25 miles north of Preston. The kittens were very skinny, did not exhibit typical human avoidance behavior, and there was no evidence of an adult lion with them or in the area.
The orphaned kittens were less than six months of age, too young to survive on their own in the wild. Mountain lions under six months old are still dependent on their mothers to provide food and security. Knowing this, Fish and Game staff made the decision to capture the kittens rather than leave them in the wild where they would likely starve. With the help of local houndsmen experienced in lion capture, the 3 sibling kittens were safely caught.
Rehabilitation and release of the mountain lions back into the wild was not considered an option for these youngsters. Fish and Game staff recognized that these mountain lions would require frequent attention and care to successfully rehabilitate them, thus habituating the young cats to humans. If released after such care, the lions may not have avoided humans and may have keyed in on human-populated areas in search of food. This would have presented a risk to humans, livestock, pets, and to the mountain lions themselves. Fish and Game concluded the best option for these particular orphans was to find a facility that could permanently care for them.
The mountain lions were held in a temporary facility for approximately eight weeks after their capture in early January. There they received the food and care necessary for them to gain weight and improve body conditions necessary for a safe transfer and transition to a permanent facility.
In spite of the precautions taken to ensure the kittens were returned to full health, one of them, a 48-pound male, experienced an unusual reaction to the drugs used to immobilize them for transfer and did not survive. The state wildlife health veterinarian for Idaho is conducting a necropsy and tests to try to determine a possible cause for such an unusual reaction. The other two lions, another 48-pound male and a 34-pound female, experienced a normal recovery after receiving the immobilization drug.
While Fish and Game and Grandfather Mountain staffs are saddened by the loss of one of the three lions, there is also mutual satisfaction that the other two are healthy and have a new home where they will spark interest, imagination, and wildlife conservation awareness to many people into the future.