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Cat's cradle: Cougar at state park

By Jane Koestring
On February 4, 2014

They are an animal known by many names: puma, cougar, panther, mountain lion. But at Hueston Woods State Park, everybody just calls him Timber.

The young cougar bounds around his enclosure at the Hueston Woods Nature Center, enjoying the attention he gets from guests. He's long and graceful, almost like an overgrown housecat, with a small head and a puffy tail. He seems comfortable in his new home, an exhibit affectionately called the "Cougar Cave."

It wasn't easy bringing Timber to Hueston Woods. When Cougie, the cougar on display at the Nature Center for the last 18 years, passed away of old age in the spring of 2012, the naturalists set out to fill his paws.

The search was extensive. There didn't seem to be any available cougars anywhere. After contacting zoos across the country and inquiring about wild cougars that needed rescue or were orphaned, the Hueston Woods Naturalists came up short.

That's when the Heaven's Corner Zoo and Animal Sanctuary in West Alexandria, Ohio stepped in. They had received a litter of cougars from a zoo and were willing to donate one to the Nature Center. And so it was that Timber found a new home. After Cougie left the enclosure empty, the Hueston Woods staff got to work renovating the habitat to make it comfortable for Timber.

Park Naturalist Amanda Dalton said Miami University students played a role in getting "Cougar Cave" ready for Timber's arrival.

"We had a group of Miami students and we took a big truck down to our creek beds and had them load up about a ton of creek rock," she said. "We covered this cave with creek rock so it looks really natural."

But Timber's home is more than just a fancy façade; one side of the cave is heated to keep the cougar warm during those harsh, Ohio winters.

"Because [cougars] are native to Ohio, they are very adaptable to our climate," Dalton continued. "Our climate wouldn't bother them at all, but since he doesn't have the ability to move if he was cold, we decided to go ahead and spoil him rotten a little bit."

The exhibit also has three inches of mulch to give Timber soft ground to walk on, multiple platforms for relaxation, scratching posts and, of course, a litter box; Timber is just bigger than most.

When Timber gets peckish, he snacks on a mixture called Carnivore Diet, which is made up of chicken and beef byproducts, mostly bone, cartilage and organ meats. And when he recently celebrated his first birthday, Timber got a tasty treat: a lean T-bone steak.

Timber has made a great impression on the visitors to Hueston Woods, acting as an educational animal for guests of all ages interested in wildlife. But that is not the only reason Timber is so important to the park.

"[Timber] is a reminder of how we should widely risk-manage our resources," Dalton explained. "We used to have cougars in Ohio. They were plentiful. However, they were over-hunted and lost a lot of their habitat when we deforested Ohio. They basically became extirpated, which means that they're not extinct, they just no longer live or breed here in the state. They became extirpated in the mid-1800s. We haven't had a breeding cougar population since that time period."

Timber's ancestors may have thrived right where his enclosure now sits. However, bounty hunting beginning as early as the 1600s and continuing into the 1900s virtually wiped out cougar populations in the Midwest, according to the National Park Service. The last-known cougar in Ohio was killed in 1845.

Recently, there have been reports of cougar sightings further east of their western United States habitats, including one in Illinois two weeks ago, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation. However, there is yet to be any concrete evidence of cougars in Ohio.

The closest indication we have of cougars passing through the state occurred two years ago, when a cougar tracked in Chicago made its way to Connecticut, where it ended up getting hit by a car. The animal most likely made its way through Ohio during its journey, but there were no actual sightings.

A cougar sighting can be anything from actually seeing a cougar in person or on a wildlife camera, to finding tracks, none of which have indicated cougars in Ohio. Also, there haven't been any cougars accidentally caught in hunter's traps or hit by cars, a fate common for the bobcat, which is often mistaken for a cougar.

Though the cougar and the bobcat are often confused, they are actually very different creatures. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the cougar grows to about 5-6 feet long, compared to the bobcat's relatively small two to three and a half feet. The cougar's tail is long, making up about 40 percent of the body length, while the bobcat's six-inch tail is more of a stub.

Bobcats have a similar history to cougars in Ohio. Extirpated from the state in 1850, they were very rarely seen for a century. However, it seems the bobcat is returning to its old home. Bobcat sightings have shot up dramatically since the mid-1900s.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported 628 verified bobcat sightings in the last 41 years, with 542 of those occurring in the last 10 years alone. That is compared to the cougar's grand total of zero.

If bobcats can return to Ohio after being extirpated, there is a chance cougars could make their way back as well. Mountain Lion Foundation Staff Biologist Amy Rodrigues elaborated on the possibility.

"[Mountain lions] are capable of traveling hundreds to thousands of miles," Rodrigues said. "It's usually those young males that are looking for an available territory. They're looking for females. But since you don't have any females in the Midwest, they just keep on wandering until somebody kills them. So yeah, eventually Ohio could have some mountain lions, probably not a huge population, but they could be travelling through the state to get to the Adirondacks or the Appalachian mountains."

The Mountain Lion Foundation makes it their mission to protect mountain lions and their habitats by trying to pass legislation that keeps mountain lions from being killed if they pose no immediate threat.

They have had success in California, a hotbed for cougars, passing a bill that protects the animals if they accidentally wander into towns. Rodrigues said the foundation hopes to find legislative success in Midwestern and eastern states as well.

"In the Midwest and on the East Coast we're looking now to pass legislation that would protect any lions that wander into the state," Rodrigues stated. "Just to give them a chance that they could recolonize. In Illinois, there are no laws. The mountain lion isn't even recognized as a native species because it was wiped out before the state's game agency was ever formed. If we can pass the laws first, that will lay the foundation for the species to come back."

The Mountain Lion Foundation also aims to protect the cougar's habitat, allowing them to have a place to live if they make their way back to their habitats of yore.

Timber, his sisters still at Heaven's Corner, and a handful of other cougars in zoos throughout the state are all that remain in Ohio of this mighty Midwestern cat.

Timber seems pretty happy living on the land once ruled by his kind. He dozes in his cave, unaware that the faces that stare everyday are looking at a relic of a time gone by. Timber is oblivious. He has other things to worry about; there might just be a little bit of that birthday steak left.

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