Cougar gets salmon cake and tea for the big 15

By Sherry Grindeland
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Merlin instantly went from pussycat to stealth cat. He heard the hound dogs baying in the distance and was poised to hunt whatever had set them off.

The cougar will never have that opportunity.

Merlin lives behind bars at the Cougar Mountain Zoological Park in Issaquah. Compared with life in the wild, this caged habitat is the cat’s meow. It comes with trees to scratch, rocks for sunning and climbing, caves for shelter from the sun, cat houses for naps and meals six days a week.

On the seventh day, Merlin and the other cougar, Nashi, fast.

The sheltered life has given Merlin the opportunity to celebrate his 15th birthday today, an unusual feat for mountain lions. His cousins in the wild usually survive eight to 10 years, said Robyn Barfoot, the zoo manager and Merlin’s keeper.

Merlin is one of 100 creatures at the 8-acre zoo south of Interstate 90 in Issaquah. He arrived as an orphaned cub in 1992.

Cougar Mountain Zoo, established in 1972, focuses on endangered species and public education. More than 80,000 people visit annually. The nonprofit zoo expands as funding permits. New macaw and lemur exhibits costing $2.1 million are under construction and projected to open in 2008.

For his birthday, Merlin will eat a cake made of salmon. (Nashi, 13, will receive a similar cake to keep the peace between the two males.) His gifts include an assortment of feathers from the zoo’s birds for play and some hay laced with green tea and mint mouthwash — a favorite of Merlin’s.

“We joke the green tea makes him calm and the Listerine makes him minty,” Barfoot said.

Barfoot tends the cougars each morning. The big cats go into holding pens while she cleans their enclosure. She often rearranges things — the rocks Nashi likes to carry around and the log segments in the cage for play — to keep the cougars from getting bored. She trains each cat for a few minutes, giving treats for cooperation.

“I ask Merlin to open his mouth so I can inspect it. He holds up his paws and rolls over. The behaviors are ways for me to visually inspect the cougars,” she said.

That inspection probably saved Merlin’s life in September. Both cats were stung by yellow jackets. Nashi was fine. Merlin had an allergic reaction; his right rear paw became infected. With the help of antibiotics, the sore is healing.

In the wild, Barfoot said, he wouldn’t have been able to hunt and would have starved.

Even though Merlin meows greetings to Barfoot and purrs, she never caresses him. Treats are given via footlong tongs.

“Cougars are highly intelligent cats, but they’re still wild animals,” she said. “I want to keep both hands.”

Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or sgrindeland@seattletimes.com

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