WENATCHEE — A 6-week-old orphaned cougar kitten captured southeast of Cle Elum and nursed back to health by an East Wenatchee veterinarian last week is on her way to the Denver Zoo.
The kitten is the seventh orphaned baby cougar in the state to be sent to a zoo in the last four years, said Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In all but one of the cases, the mothers were believed to have been illegally killed by hunters, he said.
Beausoleil said motorists and residents first reported seeing the young cougar Dec. 4 wandering near the intersection of Highways 97 and 10, about seven miles from the edge of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
State wildlife officers chased down and caught the baby, and took her to a location in the Swauk Creek drainage where they thought her mother may have left her. But on Wednesday, the officers learned that a man had killed an adult cougar in the area where the baby was found, and Beausoleil said it was likely the kitten's mother.
So wildlife officers went back to check on the kitten and found her "running around in circles" alone, he said. They captured her by hand and brought her to Randy Hein, an East Wenatchee veterinarian, for treatment. She was slightly dehydrated and hungry, Beausoleil said.
At 6 weeks old, the cougar was too young to be released into the wild, he said. The animals usually stay with their mothers until they are 12 to 18 months old, learning how to hunt and survive.
"We can't teach an animal how to kill," he said, so the agency had no option but to find a facility to take the kitten.
Beausoleil said he sent out a notice to accredited animal facilities nationwide on Thursday and quickly heard back from the Denver Zoo, which flew the animal to Denver on Sunday.
"I hate to see an animal not being released back into the wild," he said. "But if it can serve as an ambassador to help people appreciate what's out there in the wild, then I think that has some merit, too."
The 7-pound kitten will join a second orphan, a 3-month-old cougar cub recently captured in South Dakota, at the Denver Zoo. The two will spend some time getting to know each other, then be introduced to the public in January, said zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie. She said the zoo only has one other cougar, which is nearly 20 years old, that will be kept separate from the young ones.
"We are just really happy this is a situation where we were able to help," Bowie said of the cougar kitten rescue. "We're very excited to have her here."
Bowie said the zoo has yet to name the new cub.
In the past four years, Fish and Wildlife has sent six other cougar kittens to zoos in Memphis, Tenn.; San Diego, Calif.; and North Dakota. Three were captured in Western Washington and three in Eastern Washington.
Beausoleil said that while it is illegal to kill a female cougar with young, it may be difficult for hunters to know that a cougar has kittens. A mother cougar will often stash her young in a bush or den while she hunts. However, Beausoleil said hunters should take some extra time to observe a cougar before shooting it, to make sure her kittens aren't nearby. Also, they should check to see if her belly is dragging toward the ground — an indication that she recently gave birth — or that her teats are enlarged to indicate nursing.
"Unfortunately, hunters may do all the right things and still end up taking a cougar with kittens," he said.