HELENA – A pair of mountain lion kittens rescued from a wildfire in the Bitterroot National Forest will soon have a new home at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio.
Both male, the kittens were rescued in late August by firefighters who heard sounds from under a burning log while fighting the Three Mile fire near Florence.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Tom Palmer said it’s impossible to say what happened to the mother, but leaving the kittens in the middle of an active fire site was not an option.
Since Aug. 31, the babies have been under the care of FWP wildlife rehabilitation coordinator Lisa Rhodin.
“Literally every day we see changes in them,” Rhodin said.
Just 12 to 14 days old when they arrived at the Montana Wildlife Center in Helena, the pair didn’t have any teeth and couldn’t really use their eyes. Now four weeks old, they’ve doubled in size and are starting to exhibit predator traits.
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Rhodin said they’ve started to pounce, and one will drag around a blanket he plays with.
Besides inhaling smoke and having water and fire retardant dropped on them, the kittens did not suffer any physical harm during the fire, she said.
The kittens now have clear lungs, bright blue eyes and are perfectly healthy. Rhodin has been feeding them a formula similar to milk from a mother mountain lion.
Throughout the process, FWP has been fielding interest from zoos accredited by the American Zoos Association that wanted to provide a home for the cats.
“If you try to release them before they’re 3 years old, they probably won’t survive,” Rhodin said.
The leading cause of mortality among young mountain lions is getting killed by older males, so without a mother, the two kittens would have no chance of survival in the wild.
The Montana Wildlife Center usually receives mountain lion kittens once or twice a year, Rhodin said. This time, FWP decided to loan the mountain lions to the Columbus Zoo.
“Normally I don’t ship these babies ... till they’re weaned,” Rhodin said.
But the famed zoo has enrichment and immersion programs it wants to start with the kittens as young as possible, so it is willing to pay for Rhodin to travel with the lions to Columbus.
On Wednesday morning, Rhodin will fly with the kittens on a commercial flight to their new home. But the kittens won’t be in the baggage compartments. Rhodin is taking them on the plane in travel carriers, and even gave the kittens their own seat.
Once in Ohio, the kittens will be kept together while young, but Rhodin said it is up to the zoo whether to put them in separate exhibits when they are older. She did say she thinks the Columbus Zoo has plans to use the mountain lions as part of its conservation education program.
“There’s really no better place for them to end up,” Tom Palmer said.
Mountain lions usually live around 20 to 25 years in captivity.