Minnesota "pet" cougar story ends on sad note

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A what in Proctor? Cougar story ends on sad note

Robin Washington
Duluth News Tribune – 02/01/2009

Whatever else you say about her, Tasha was ridiculously cute. Like when she lounged on top of the refrigerator.

“People would come over and say, ‘Oh, my God! Do you know there’s a cougar on your refrigerator?'” Marlene O’Connor of Proctor recalled Saturday.

Obviously, the O’Connors did know that, and had an idea of what they were getting into when they acquired the four-month-old big cat from a newspaper ad in 1993.

“She was already eating red meat,” said Marlene’s husband, Jim, adding a lesson: “Never feed them red meat. That’s all they’ll want.”

Instead, they settled on poultry, sometimes combined with cat food. Larger prey wasn’t on the menu, even when inadvertently offered.

“Once, in her kennel, she grabbed a guy’s finger” in her mouth, Marlene said. “She never bit it, but she hung on.” The visitor remained “calm and collected,” she said, and eventually Tasha let go.

Jim also brought home a bear cub once, which the Department of Natural Resources took away. But neighbors didn’t mind the cougar, he said. “They come up in the yard and they want to see it.”

Or not, said neighbor Howard McIntyre.

“I never went up there,” he said. “I heard it call. When it was …”

Let’s just say in an amorous mood.

Tasha also made outings to the vet, although two doctors would come to see her — until last fall. They had closed their practices, Jim said, and Tasha, now 16, stopped eating, showing signs of diabetes. He called around to other vets, but complained he couldn’t get past the receptionists.

“They said the same thing. They do not handle exotic cats,” he said, adding he called the Lake Superior Zoo and other animal facilities from Duluth to the Twin Cities.

In November, Tasha died.

“As far as him calling here and talking to someone, I don’t recall that,” said Sam Maida, the zoo’s executive director, explaining the zoo would have been under city management at that time. Regardless, he said the zoo’s policy is to make a referral.

“Vets are pretty good. They’ll come to you,” Maida said. “You don’t have to bring your exotic in, just like you don’t have to bring a cow into the vet.

“But if you’re going to have one, you’d better be sure there are vets in your area to take care of it. It’s like having a really hot sports car without anyone here who knows how to fix it. If something goes wrong, you’d have to trailer it to Minneapolis.”

And that gets into the larger issue of owning exotic species in the first place. It’s discouraged by a 2004 Minnesota law requiring that existing animals be registered with counties and severely restricting new acquisitions, though there are loopholes.

All this resonates with me because my family lived with an ocelot for 20 years. We, too, got it from an ad in the paper, and El Gato exhibited the same stalking and refrigerator-climbing habits that Tasha did — with a major addition: He did bite, and I still have the scars.

But we loved him nonetheless, and his personality was so strong, he’s still the first thing high school friends ask about when reconnecting with me.

So do I endorse private ownership of exotic felines today? Not quite. Everyone I know who owns one seems to believe “no one knows how to take care of big cats except me.” And though rare, incidents do happen — none worse than the Sandstone, Minn., woman, with every license and credential in the world, mauled to death by her own undernourished tiger in 2006.

Humans, however, have options; captive animals do not, which is why Jim O’Connor says he wouldn’t get another cougar.

“If I was 20 years younger, I would,” he said. But now, “the cat would outlive me. I’m 67. I wouldn’t be around for it.”

Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune. Reach him at rwashington@duluthnews.com.



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

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