Orphaned cougar kittens getting second chance at life

Orphaned cougar kittens getting second chance at life
ENUMCLAW, Wash. -- It's rare to see a wild cougar kitten up close. But we were able to see two brothers who are now orphans as they were leaving the wild.

A deer hunter in Mason County admits he saw them, saw their mother, then shot and killed her.

He wasn't protecting himself.

He was breaking the law. He was cited and will have to pay a fine.

"He saw the opportunity to take a cougar and took it," said Wildlife Biologist Rich Beausoleil.  "He said he was unaware of the rules of taking a female with kittens.  When questioned if that was the ethical thing to do, he replied, 'probably not.' "

Another hunter turned the man in, scooping up a kitten and calling wildlife agents. They brought in Mishka, a Karelian Bear Dog, to track down the den and a second cub.

Officers believe there was a third, perhaps even a fourth kitten they couldn't rescue. At this age, those kittens will starve in the wild.

They would normally have milk from their mother for another couple months, and then learn to hunt alongside her for another year. The only way to save the lives of the two brothers is to find a zoo to raise them.

The Oregon Zoo is a national clearinghouse of sorts for orphaned cougars. They will take them in until adopting them out to other zoos.

Michelle Schireman runs the program.

"They should have good lives," she said.  "One of the nice things about zoos is, while they don't get the fun of chasing down prey and being out in the wild, they do live a really long life.  They have great food, a good dental plan, veterinarians, they generally live 20 years in captivity versus 8-10 in the wild."

The Houston Zoo already agreed to take one of the brothers and will maybe take both. Schireman has other possibilities for the second orphan as well.

It is a happy ending to a story that had such a sad beginning.

"Ultimately millions of people will see these cougars in the enclosure, and that's an opportunity they just don't get, so they'll come to appreciate these critters for what they are," Beausoleil said.