"I am not naÏve about nature," said Dan Hansen, after returning last weekend from a fishing trip. "I know there's no easy way to die in the woods. Still, I wasn't prepared for what I saw this morning."
Even though he's a hunter, the Spokane Valley sportsman said he was disturbed by two orphaned critters in an graphic situation.
"We'd just descended the last switchback on State Highway 129, and were a mile from the Grande Ronde River, when I spotted a cougar kitten on the side of the road. We stopped and saw another.
"One was gnawing on old roadkill — nothing left but sun-baked bones, skin and hooves — and the other was bedded nearby. I rolled down the window, and started snapping pictures."
Hansen and his fishing partner expected the mother to be close by.
"We watched for a while, and the feeding kitten tugged at the floppy foreleg of the carcass. That's when I realized that it wasn't a hoof, but the paw of a fully grown cougar. The bedded kitten rose, and we could see its ribs and hipbones.
"Sickened, we headed to Boggan's Oasis, and asked the gal behind the counter for the number of Fish and Wildlife. 'You saw the cougars,' she said. 'The mother was hit a month ago.'"
Wildlife officers had been contacted and one had showed up two weeks earlier, according to Madonna Luers, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman.
"He left the carcass of the mother alone since it was off the road and not a hazard," she said. "He collected one dead kitten, but found no sign indicating there were two more."
The sighting haunted the fishermen.
"Throughout the day, one or the other of us would mention the cats," Hansen recalled. "If we caught a hatchery steelhead, maybe we could drop it off for them. For what purpose? To stave off starvation for a week?
"If we had a gun, we could put them out of their misery — an act both humane and illegal."
The two men headed back up the highway at the end of the day and found two trucks at the site of the roadkill, one bearing the Washington Fish and Wildlife emblem. The other pickup belonged to a houndsman. The dogs were baying up in the woods.
Hansen thought that was the bitter end. But it wasn't.
The surviving kittens, a male and female, were captured by the houndsman and officer Matt Sabo and turned over to Rich Beausoleil, the department's cougar and bear specialist in Wenatchee.
Beausoleil alleviated some of the fishermen's anxiety by assuring them that the kittens hadn't survived in a Donner Party scenario of feeding on their mother's carcass. The young were just being weaned when she was killed. The carcass likely was picked clean by scavengers as kittens took refuge in nearby trees.
"They were starving," Beausoleil said. "They were skin and bones, about 10 pound each, which is 50 percent of the normal weight at age 7 to 8 weeks.
Beausoleil immediately advertised the kittens to a network of American Zoological Association facilities across the country. While the kittens were in caring hands going into this weekend, the pair of 7-week old kittens two options: Placement in a zoo or being put down.
"Bear cubs can be successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild, but that doesn't work for cougar kittens," Luers said.
"The big difference is that bears are omnivores with lots of food options. Cougars are carnivores and humans don't have an effective way to teach a baby mountain lion how to hunt for its food."
After a week-long search, the two cougar kittens from Asotin County were placed Monday with Alexandria Zoological Park in Alexandria, La. They flew out Tuesday morning.
In 15 years, the agency's staff had captured 35 orphaned cougars and transferred the kittens to facilities across the county. "Those mountain lions from Washington are seen across the country by 25 million people a year who are enjoying and appreciating them, and hopefully learning something about them," Luers said.
The Grande Ronde kittens will bring the number to 37 orphaned cougars from Washington becoming wildlife ambassadors.