Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rescue of Sophia the Cougar

Sophia the cougar and VP Cathy NeumannSophia Female Cougar

DOB 1/1/91 Rescued on 1/22/09

"Will anyone give me $200 for this fine breeding age puma?" the auctioneer's voice blasts over the loud speakers in the livestock barn during an animal auction in Louisiana. A red neck raises his number, thinking to himself, that he can mount her head and that of the male cougar he just bought over the T. V. in his trailer. The gavel slams down and Sophia's life has just taken a perilous change for the worse. She and her mate had been ripped from their mothers when they were cubs, declawed and bottle raised to be used as ego props. When they were little they could be used for photo opportunities and could be walked about on leashes as mini trophies. Now they were too big for that and their owner had crated them into tiny cages and consigned them over to a live animal auction.

These auctions are legal in the US and all manner of exotic animals, many of them endangered species, are sold to anyone who has the cash. To qualify as a buyer is pretty straightforward; if you are buying an endangered species, like a tiger, you have to have proof that you live in the state and if you are buying any non endangered animal, all you have to do is prove that you don't live in the state. Once you leave the state, no one in the selling state cares who you are or what you do. If you are buying within your own state lines, then your state may or may not have some regulations. One thing is true everywhere and that is that even states with regulations never have the money or resources to properly enforce them. 7 states have no rules so anything goes. Want to walk your tiger through a nursing home or a grade school? "No problem" say a lot of states, including Florida, where we have repeatedly documented that very issue.

Sophia's new owner loads her and the male cougar into a truck and heads to a taxidermist he knows in Laronger, Louisiana named Joe. The story, as relayed to me by Joe, was that the owner pulled up and promptly shot the male cougar, announcing that he wanted the cat stuffed and mounted. Hearing the gun shot, Joe's wife Mary came running out of the house, just in time to see the gun leveled as the trembling female cougar in the tiny crate. Mary yelled out, "Don't shoot the cougar! Oh please! Don't kill the cat!"

Sophia CougarJoe described himself to me as a wildlife sculptor, but when pressed for details of his art, he lowered his gaze and said, "My sculptures are cast into molds that are then sold to taxidermists." When animals are skinned and mounted, their skins are stretched over these plastic reproductions. Joe is famous for how lifelike his reproductions are and he credits that to studying the live animals. His acreage is divided into pastures full of caged animals who are often killed for sport.

The redneck advises the couple that he paid good money for these cats so he could mount them on his wall. He looks to Joe to explain to the missus that she needs to mind her own business. Joe has done well for himself. The large, fenced track of land sports a very large home, with high glass windows out onto Joe's world, and a wrap around deck so that he can sculpt with unobstructed views, all of the creatures who are posing for the lifeless bodies of countless others of their kind. There is a barn the size of an airline hangar that houses row upon row, floor to ceiling, of the plastic reproductions of his art. His business is primarily selling to taxidermists.

Joe startles the red neck by asking, "How much for her?" The gun's barrel drops earthward as the killer reckons that he paid $200 for her and it cost him $50 to get her here, or in other words, he wants a $50 profit. Mountain lions are cheap. He can buy another one. Joe agrees and moves Sophia into a chicken coop.

That was 13 years ago and what looked like a chicken coop to me was probably used for housing fancy pheasants who were used as models for the stuffed bodies of exotic birds that are killed for fun. When Maria Davidson of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries called and asked me if we could rescue a cougar, she had told me that the cat was in a concrete floored cage that was made of chain link. She said the cage was roughly 6 feet by 8 feet by 6 or 8 feet high. A tip had resulted in the department's seizure of the cougar, but they had been told it was a cub, so when law enforcement arrived to take the cub to a willing new owner, they discovered an aged cougar instead. The person they had found, who would have been happy to rescue a cub, had no use for an adult and refused to take the cat, so Maria called Big Cat Rescue.

We noticed upon arrival that law enforcement officers were wearing flack jackets. Scott Lope, Chris Poole and I had not gotten THAT memo! I had overheard some of the officers talking about an infamous case involving the stealing of a 17 point buck and selling him for $3000 to a breeder in Louisiana (after the TX buyer defaulted on paying a promised $8000 for the deer when he heard it was hot property.) The lucrative trade in wild animals is only second to the illegal trade in drugs. It is rife with criminals and people who have little or no regard for life.

Sophia CougarMaria suggested that only a small crew go around the house to the coop so that the cougar would not be stressed by new faces. I already liked Maria, because of all she is doing to end the abuse of wild animals in Louisiana, but this appreciation for how the cat was feeling just strengthened that good impression. She took her vet, Dr. Lacour, Scott and Chris down to assess the situation so we could decide which of the three types of transports we brought would be the safest and easiest way to move her. What they discovered was that the cat was in what appeared to be the final stages of renal failure and she could not walk. 17 is old for a mountain lion and renal failure is common in cats because their diet is high in protein. Cats only live 10 or 12 years in the wild, so their parts aren't designed to last this long.

If Sophia could not stand, there was no way she could be coaxed into walking into the transport. With ears flattened back she didn't trust humans and her hissing punctuated the unspoken threat to bite anyone who came near her. These situations are never black and white and this one presented a dilemma as well. On the one hand, this cat had lived in this chicken coop for 13 years and maybe it would be kinder to just let her live out her last few days here.

On the other hand, she had only a tattered tarp tied to the west wall of her cage, probably more for shade than to break the cold, damp northern winds. She had a concrete floor and a low concrete bench because the owner said that made it easier to clean. Even if we were to give him the hay that we had brought for her ride, there was no reason to believe that he would use it. In another Louisiana case, with the help of Sky Williamson, we had made sure that Tony the tiger got hay, but the Tiger Truck Stop had refused to give it to him. It is messy and these animals were not beloved pets who could impose on their owners' desire to make things easy on themselves.

We decided that even if Sophia only had a few days left to live, they should be in comfort and as much as we hate to tranquilize a cat, the only way she was going into her hay filled transport cage was if she were sound asleep. While she was sleeping Dr. Lacour did an exam and drew blood so that our vet, Dr. Wynn, would have a good idea of how progressed her situation was so that we could treat her accordingly.

Scott, Maria, Dr. Lacour and Guy the law enforcement officer who told me this was his first "cat call" in 18 years on the force, made a sling from a blanket and used it to carry Sophia out of her tiny, barren prison cell and into the next stage of her pitiful life.

We loaded her transport into the van so that we could keep an eye on her and better regulate the temperature to keep her warm. It would be a 12 hour ride back to Tampa and silence in the van allowed her to sleep most of the way. As long as the van was rhythmically rocking down the road she slept or laid quietly on the only softness she has known in more than a decade. (Was that a purr?) Since it was cold in Tampa when we arrived at 1 am we decided to move her transport into the cat hospital for the night.

The next day she still was having a very hard time moving about, so we decided to keep her inside on her fluffy hay palette until the weather breaks. It has been in the 60's during the day but has dropped into the high 30's and 40's at night. Meanwhile her new Cat-a-tat, which is 1,200 square feet of space, is being modified a bit more to accommodate her disability. I called Mary to let her know that Sophia had arrived at Big Cat Rescue safely. I was appalled at the way the cougar was kept all these years, but if not for Mary pleading for her life, Sophia would be just another nameless animal head on a wall.

Sophia CougarLate on the 24th we hooked the hay filled transport cage to the front of Sophia's new enclosure. We set up her water near her as her eyesight is very limited. She ate well last night and sleeps a lot. Just the quick move from the West Boensch Cat Hospital on site to her new home near the other cougars seemed to wear her out, even though she was just being carried like royalty in her cat version of a rickshaw. The volunteers had prepared her new digs by converting every step over door into an ADA ramp. The also piled boughs of Christmas trees in her cave and about her enclosure so she could sniff her way along the scented path to all the best features of her new home.

We don't know how long Sophia may have in this world, but thanks to all of our supporters, staff and volunteers, she will have the best life possible from now until then.

All photos were shot at Big Cat Rescue on the day Sophia was moved from the cat hospital to her new Cat-a-tat. To see a slide show of photos click HERE

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