Thursdays with Oliver
Oliver resting in his enclosure.
Late last year, I checked something off my bucket list that wasnít even on it! How so? In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would have an opportunity to spend quality time with a mountain lion cub. Sometimes magic happens though, and for me, this story began when I heard that a very young mountain lion had been brought to Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR).
It was the end of October when SCWR learned that they were getting another mountain lion cub. Earlier last year they had taken in a young female who was deemed to be unreleasable due to her age. I wrote a column about that lion, whose name is Nicole, back in November. The newcomer was a young male who had been hit by a car on a country road in Milpitas. The Department of Fish and Wildlife placed him in the care of SCWR. As he also was too young to be raised and released Ė mountain lions stay with their mothers for at least a year, sometimes two, before they disburse Ė he was to become an educational ambassador for his species. He was named Oliver. He was very wild when he came in, and the process of getting him used to humans commenced.
A few short weeks after Oliver arrived, the woman from Milpitas who rescued him called to say that an adult mountain lion had been sighted in the same area. Could this be Oliverís mother? Would this be a chance to reunite him with her?
Please believe me when I say that heaven and earth were moved to try to reunite this young lion with his mother, which would have been the best possible outcome for him. Not quite a cast of thousands, but almost! In addition to SCWR staff members, many employees from the Department of Fish and Wildlife were involved as well as employees from East Bay Parks and the S.F. Public Utilities Commission. Our local mountain lion expert, Dr. Quinton Martins, who is doing research here in Sonoma Valley was very much involved. After several days of trying, the effort was abandoned, as Oliverís mother did not return for her cub. You can follow the entire story, with lots of photos, on SCWRís Facebook page scrolling back to early November.
The process of socializing Oliver started all over again. Normally, when any wild animal is admitted, there is a minimum amount of handling. We try to avoid eye contact. We speak in lowered voices and say as little as possible. Our goal is to get the animal well and back out into the wild ASAP. The less human interference, the better.
If an animal is going to be an education ambassador, the opposite is true. We make eye contact, we talk to them, we expose them to many different humans. We do this gradually and gently so that they will be comfortable around humans. These animals are not pets, so we donít hold them, pet them, or treat them as such.
What a thrill it was for me to be part of Oliverís socialization team. The first time I met him he greeted me with a growl. Even though he was small enough to be in a dog crate, his growl was already pretty scary. At this point he was inside all of the time. My job was to talk softly to him, not threaten him in any way, not touch him, and maybe get him to play with his toys. Mostly he just wanted to sleep, which was fine, as it gave me a chance to get a very close-up view of him. Iíve lived with cats all of my life, but Iíd never seen anything like this! His head and feet were huge, and his tail was long and thick. What an incredibly beautiful animal.
Every Thursday for many weeks, I had a date with Oliver. Every time I saw him he was a little bigger. He no longer growled at me, and he would play with his toys Ė his favorites being a stuffed toy leopard and a long wand with feathers, similar to ones that my own cats have. Even though it was obvious that he wasnít a house cat, his behaviors were so similar. He would curl up in a ball; lick his paws; roll over on his back with all four huge paws up in the air. An impressive purr, too. What an education for me.
When he was bigger, he was able to be moved outdoors. His enclosure was next to Nicoleís. The plan was for them to get used to each other. He was still wary of me, but would come close from time to time. He was curious just as all cats are. In the wild, mountain lions are solitary. As SCWR now had two, and they were quite young, it was thought that they could merge them. Expert advice was sought from many, many very experienced people as to how to go about this process.
Eventually the two lions were put together. It went well. Of course, we were no longer allowed to go in to the enclosure once they were merged. Nicole was almost one then, and Oliver was growing. Even though they were being raised by humans, it could be dangerous. On Thursdays I continued to go out and socialize with both cats. I would talk to them and play with them from outside their enclosure. I go visit them less frequently now, but itís still a thrill, as they recognize my voice and one or both will come to greet me.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.