Paws and Effect: Orphaned Sibling Cougar Cubs Found a Home at Grandfather Mountain

Published Monday, March 7, 2016 at 11:02 am

Call it a case of paws and effect.

After being orphaned in the wilds of Idaho, two sibling cougar cubs have found a new home at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, N.C.

An orphaned cougar cub peeks out of its crate, after arriving in Morganton, N.C., from Idaho. The cub and its sibling will now reside at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, N.C. Photo by Bob Wilson

An orphaned cougar cub peeks out of its crate, after arriving in Morganton, N.C., from Idaho. The cub and its sibling will now reside at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, N.C. Photo by Bob Wilson

The duo — a brother and sister — was found, along with another male sibling who passed away prior to the move, on an Idaho man’s property in January, emaciated and searching for food.

“We don’t know what happened to their mom,” said Christie Tipton, chief animal curator for Grandfather Mountain. “They were found wandering around a neighborhood, looking for food, because they aren’t big enough to successfully catch their own.”

Before taking them into custody, Idaho Fish and Game determined the cougars had been orphaned and were unable to fend for themselves in the wild. Shortly thereafter, Tipton received a call from a contact with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, who knew the mountain was seeking new cougars for its environmental wildlife habitats.

“We heard about these guys, and we were lucky enough to be able to give them a home,” Tipton said.

The mountain was also lucky enough to have friends in Bob Wilson, philanthropist, pilot and vice chairman of Kemmons Wilson Companies, and his wife, Susan.

From left, philanthropist and pilot Bob Wilson, Grandfather Mountain executive director Jesse Pope, JetSwiss founder and pilot Don Peterson, Grandfather Mountain chief animal curator Christie Tipton, assistant animal curator Emma Schlagal and chief pilot Charlie Huggins stand outside Wilson’s Pilatus PC-12 plane, which the group used to transport two cougar cubs from Idaho to Grandfather Mountain. Photo courtesy of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

From left, philanthropist and pilot Bob Wilson, Grandfather Mountain executive director Jesse Pope, JetSwiss founder and pilot Don Peterson, Grandfather Mountain chief animal curator Christie Tipton, assistant animal curator Emma Schlagal and chief pilot Charlie Huggins stand outside Wilson’s Pilatus PC-12 plane, which the group used to transport two cougar cubs from Idaho to Grandfather Mountain. Photo courtesy of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

The Wilsons, full-time residents of Memphis, Tenn., and part-time residents of nearby Jonas Ridge, are not only helping financially to support renovations to the mountain’s cougar habitat, but also granted Grandfather use of their private plane to retrieve the cubs.

“They’ve been so generous to Grandfather Mountain,” said Jesse Pope, executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Linville-based attraction. “They love the mountain, and they made this possible, providing the plane and pilots to fly us out there and back.”

“When Jesse called, informing us of their locating some cougars for their habitat, we thought being a part of the transfer would be a great idea,” Bob Wilson said. “We own a Pilatus PC-12, which is the perfect airplane for the transfer. I called two of my flying friends, Don Peterson from Kansas and Charlie Huggins, who flies with me, and they immediately signed on to help out. We all were proud to be a part of making it happen.”

The Wilsons are also nature enthusiasts, and the cougars offered a prime opportunity to share that sense of wonder with others.

“Our love for God’s creatures by helping others understand nature and how our world exists were our driving forces,” Wilson said. “The Lord has blessed Susan and me with the financial ability to help others, and this is one way we can accomplish it.”

According to Pope, the flight home was uneventful and enjoyable.

“The cubs didn’t like it when we’d go near them,” Tipton said. “Lots of hissing and spitting when we were next to them, but when given their space, they were sitting there as cool as can be. They handled it really, really well.”

From left, Christie Tipton, Bob Wilson, Don Peterson and Emma Schlagal load a crate containing a cougar cub into Wilson’s private plane. Photo by Jesse Pope | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

From left, Christie Tipton, Bob Wilson, Don Peterson and Emma Schlagal load a crate containing a cougar cub into Wilson’s private plane. Photo by Jesse Pope | Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

The travelers landed at Foothills Regional Airport in Morganton in the late afternoon of Friday, March 4, before completing the final leg of their journey to Grandfather Mountain.

Upon arrival, they were released into temporary living quarters for quarantine, pending the results of a health check conducted by the Idaho state veterinarian. Tipton said the big cats appear to be in good health, about 7 months old, with the male weighing in at 48 pounds and the female at 32.

However, it could be three to four months before they’re seen by the public, as renovations to the habitat must first be completed.

“We’ve never had a clawed cougar in the habitat before,” Tipton said, “so we’re going to raise up the rock walls, cut down a few trees and upgrade a holding area to the side of the habitat.”

The habitat is currently home to Aspen, a 12-year-old, 134-pound Western cougar. Due to their age difference and other sharp, retractable factors  — the cubs have claws, while Aspen does not — it’s unlikely the three will be placed in the habitat together, but rather rotate their time there.

The cubs must also grow accustomed to an altogether different sort of animal — humans.

“They’re very nervous, and they’ve had very limited human contact,” Tipton said. “It could take a while before they’re used to being around people, maybe more than the three to four months we are anticipating. It all depends on how quickly they come around.”

When they do, Pope is confident it’ll benefit visitors and the cougars, alike.

“It’s going to be exciting to have a couple more animals there, especially for the cats’ interaction,” he said. “For their mental health, it will be very good for them. Cougars are a spectacular part of our natural history, so we’re really excited to continue telling the story of their niche in our ecosystem. They enhance our educational programming, enhance the visitor experience and provide a glimpse into the natural flora and fauna that have historically called Grandfather Mountain home.”

To see a video clip of the cougars arriving in their new home, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzO3rE1Qrfo.

For more information, call (828) 733-2013, or email frank@grandfather.com.

The not-for-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call (800) 468-7325, or visit www.grandfather.com to plan a trip.

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