Biologists try to keep weeks-old mountain lion kittens in the wild after their mom dies
A young mountain lion caring for 2-week-old kittens in the Simi Hills died this summer, prompting biologists to try something for the first time.
They knew the best outcome would be to keep them in the wild, but too young to survive on their own, that meant finding them a foster family.
The mom, dubbed P-67, had been wearing a GPS collar as part of a long-term study of the local mountain lion population. Shortly after locating her kittens for a brief health check in July, the National Park Service got a mortality signal from her collar.
While illegal to raise or rehabilitate and release mountain lions in California, researcher Justin Dellinger with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife suggested maybe they could foster the kittens with another local mountain lion.
Another den had just been located in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. That mother, dubbed P-65, had three kittens roughly the same age.
"This was just really a unique situation," said Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service.
Researchers knew about P-67's kittens and where they were located when she died, he said. They also knew there was another den they had just located a day earlier, so the kittens were within a couple days of the same age.
That's rare with mountain lions, which can breed year round, he said.
Sikich had tried fostering with black bears during a previous research project, and it had worked, he said. But he knew that situations can vary species by species and animal by animal.
The two orphaned kittens, found on July 7, were taken to the Los Angeles Zoo until there was an opportunity to move them into the new den.
On July 16, biologists got their chance. They moved the kittens into the new den while P-65 was away. They rubbed urine from one of her three kittens onto the two new additions so they would smell more like her own offspring, according to the park service.
Biologists then tracked P-65's movements over the next few days. She did come back to the den but later moved to a new den site 80 meters up the ridge.
On July 20, a team hiked in and Sikich and a state wildlife biologist returned to the old den to see if all five kittens had gone with her. As they got closer, the two orphaned kittens ran out and toward Sikich.
They had been left behind.
Looking at remote camera footage Sikich said they didn't get footage of the mom or when she grabbed kittens to leave, so they don't know exactly what happened. But they did see at one point her three kittens in the front of the den and the two foster kittens nearby.
"So we know that morning at least right before mom got there, or around the same time, that all the kittens were close together," he said.
While the fostering attempt failed, the scientists said their efforts were worth it to try to keep two wild animals in their natural habitat and to learn more about mountain lion behavior.
After another temporary stay at the zoo, the two kittens were moved to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. They are expected to spend the rest of their lives at the sanctuary.
'A good mother'
The National Park Service has studied the small, isolated population living around Ventura and Los Angeles counties since 2002 to determine how it survives in the increasingly urban area.
Studies have shown the mountain lions fenced in by highways and development face steep odds. The inability to get out of or into the area has led to inbreeding, low genetic diversity and mountain lions killing each other.
P-67 was originally tagged as a kitten herself in 2018, the park service said. She was around 2 ½ years old when she died.
Results of a necropsy showed she had no food in her stomach and was relatively thin. She also had signs of intestinal disease, known as enteritis, according to the park service. While there were signs of rodenticide exposure, her likely cause of death was a blood infection and enteritis.
She also was young and stressed by having kittens, which may have been a contributing factor, according to Sikich.
“She was a good mother, and she didn’t abandon them," he said. "She kept on coming back to the den and nursing them even in her likely poor state of health.”
Now 3 months old, the sanctuary reported her two kittens are doing well; stalking, wrestling and climbing, like typical wild cats.
“They are inseparable and a great comfort to each other,” sanctuary director Linda Searles said in a statement released Thursday.
The kittens are still indoors in the hot weather. When they move outside, their likely next-door neighbor will be a 15-year-old mountain lion, also raised at the sanctuary since he was a kitten. If they all get along, Searles said the kittens will eventually share his large enclosure.
Last week, the National Park Service also got an update on their potential foster family. P-65 was spotted in a photo from a remote camera, Sikich said, and she was still with her three kittens, also now 3 months old.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.