Female Cougar DOB 1/1/91 Rescued on 1/22/09 DOD 7/24/10
“Will anyone give me $200 for this fine breeding age puma?” the auctioneer’s voice blasts over the loud speakers in the livestock barn during an animal auction in Louisiana. An animal abuser raises his number, thinking to himself, that he can mount her head and that of the male cougar he just bought over the T. V. in his trailer. The gavel slams down and Sophia’s life has just taken a perilous change for the worse. She and her mate had been ripped from their mothers when they were cubs, declawed and bottle raised to be used as ego props. When they were little they could be used for photo opportunities and could be walked about on leashes as mini trophies. Now they were too big for that and their owner had crated them into tiny cages and consigned them over to a live animal auction.
These auctions are legal in the US and all manner of exotic animals, many of them endangered species, are sold to anyone who has the cash. To qualify as a buyer is pretty straightforward; if you are buying an endangered species, like a tiger, you have to have proof that you live in the state and if you are buying any non endangered animal, all you have to do is prove that you don’t live in the state. Once you leave the state, no one in the selling state cares who you are or what you do. If you are buying within your own state lines, then your state may or may not have some regulations. One thing is true everywhere and that is that even states with regulations never have the money or resources to properly enforce them. 7 states have no rules so anything goes. Want to walk your tiger through a nursing home or a grade school? “No problem” say a lot of states, including Florida, where we have repeatedly documented that very issue.
Sophia’s new owner loads her and the male cougar into a truck and heads to a taxidermist he knows in Laronger, Louisiana named Joe. The story, as relayed to me by Joe, was that the owner pulled up and promptly shot the male cougar, announcing that he wanted the cat stuffed and mounted. Hearing the gun shot, Joe’s wife Mary came running out of the house, just in time to see the gun leveled at the trembling female cougar in the tiny crate. Mary yelled out, “Don’t shoot the cougar! Oh please! Don’t kill the cat!”
Joe described himself to me as a wildlife sculptor, but when pressed for details of his art, he lowered his gaze and said, “My sculptures are cast into molds that are then sold to taxidermists.” When animals are skinned and mounted, their skins are stretched over these plastic reproductions. Joe is famous for how lifelike his reproductions are and he credits that to studying the live animals. His acreage is divided into pastures full of caged animals; the kinds who are often killed for sport.
The redneck advises the couple that he paid good money for these cats so he could mount them on his wall. He looks to Joe to explain to the missus that she needs to mind her own business. Joe has done well for himself. The large, fenced track of land sports a very large home, with high glass windows out onto Joe’s world, and a wrap around deck so that he can sculpt with unobstructed views, all of the creatures who are posing for the lifeless bodies of countless others of their kind. There is a barn the size of an airline hangar that houses row upon row, floor to ceiling, of the plastic reproductions of his art. His business is primarily selling to taxidermists.
Joe startles the red neck by asking, “How much for her?” The gun’s barrel drops earthward as the killer reckons that he paid $200 for her and it cost him $50 to get her here, or in other words, he wants a $50 profit. Mountain lions are cheap. He can buy another one. Joe agrees and moves Sophia into a chicken coop.
That was 13 years ago and what looked like a chicken coop to me was probably used for housing fancy pheasants who were used as models for the stuffed bodies of exotic birds that are killed for fun. When Maria Davidson of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries called and asked me if we could rescue a cougar, she had told me that the cat was in a concrete floored cage that was made of chain link. She said the cage was roughly 6 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet high. A tip had resulted in the department’s seizure of the cougar, but they had been told it was a cub, so when law enforcement arrived to take the cub to a willing new owner, they discovered an aged cougar instead. The person they had found, who would have been happy to rescue a cub, had no use for an adult and refused to take the cat, so Maria called Big Cat Rescue.
We noticed upon arrival that law enforcement officers were wearing flack jackets. Scott Lope, Chris Poole and I had not gotten THAT memo! I had overheard some of the officers talking about an infamous case involving the stealing of a 17 point buck and selling him for $3000 to a breeder in Louisiana (after the TX buyer defaulted on paying a promised $8000 for the deer when he heard it was hot property.) The lucrative trade in wild animals is second only to the illegal trade in drugs. It is rife with criminals and people who have little or no regard for life.
Maria suggested that only a small crew go around the house to the coop so that the cougar would not be stressed by new faces. I already liked Maria, because of all she is doing to end the abuse of wild animals in Louisiana, but this appreciation for how the cat was feeling just strengthened that good impression. She took her vet, Dr. LaCour, Scott and Chris down to assess the situation so we could decide which of the three types of transports we brought would be the safest and easiest way to move her. What they discovered was that the cat was in what appeared to be the final stages of renal failure and she could not walk. 17 is old for a mountain lion and renal failure is common in cats because their diet is high in protein. Cats only live 10 or 12 years in the wild, so their parts aren’t designed to last this long.
If Sophia could not stand, there was no way she could be coaxed into walking into the transport. With ears flattened back she didn’t trust humans and her hissing punctuated the unspoken threat to bite anyone who came near her. These situations are never black and white and this one presented a dilemma as well. On the one hand, this cat had lived in this chicken coop for 13 years and maybe it would be kinder to just let her live out her last few days here.
On the other hand, she had only a tattered tarp tied to the west wall of her cage, probably more for shade than to break the cold, damp northern winds. She had a concrete floor and a low concrete bench because the owner said that made it easier to clean. Even if we were to give him the hay that we had brought for her ride, there was no reason to believe that he would use it. In another Louisiana case, with the help of Sky Williamson, we had made sure that Tony the tiger got hay, but the Tiger Truck Stop had refused to give it to him. It is messy and these animals were not beloved pets who could impose on their owners’ desire to make things easy on themselves.
We decided that even if Sophia only had a few days left to live, they should be in comfort and as much as we hate to tranquilize a cat, the only way she was going into her hay filled transport cage was if she were sound asleep. While she was sleeping Dr. Lacour did an exam and drew blood so that our vet, Dr. Wynn, would have a good idea of how progressed her situation was so that we could treat her accordingly.
Scott, Maria, Dr. Lacour and Guy the law enforcement officer who told me this was his first “cat call” in 18 years on the force, made a sling from a blanket and used it to carry Sophia out of her tiny, barren prison cell and into the next stage of her pitiful life.
We loaded her transport into the van so that we could keep an eye on her and better regulate the temperature to keep her warm. It would be a 12 hour ride back to Tampa and silence in the van allowed her to sleep most of the way. As long as the van was rhythmically rocking down the road she slept or laid quietly on the only softness she has known in more than a decade. (Was that a purr?) Since it was cold in Tampa when we arrived at 1 am we decided to move her transport into the cat hospital for the night.
The next day she still was having a very hard time moving about, so we decided to keep her inside on her fluffy hay palette until the weather breaks. It has been in the 60’s during the day but has dropped into the high 30’s at night. Sophia was just covered with fleas who had sapped away most of her blood and strength, so she was treated for the infestation. Meanwhile her new Cat-a-tat, which is 1,200 square feet of space, is being modified a bit more to accommodate her disability. I called Mary to let her know that Sophia had arrived at Big Cat Rescue safely. I was appalled at the way the cougar was kept all these years, but if not for Mary pleading for her life, Sophia would be just another nameless animal head on a wall.
Late on the 24th we hooked the hay filled transport cage to the front of Sophia’s new enclosure. We set up her water near her as her eyesight is very limited. She ate well last night and sleeps a lot. Just the quick move from the West Boensch Cat Hospital on site to her new home near the other cougars seemed to wear her out, even though she was just being carried like royalty in her cat version of a rickshaw. The volunteers had prepared her new digs by converting every step-over door into an ADA ramp. They also piled boughs of Christmas trees in her cave and about her enclosure so she could sniff her way along the scented path to all the best features of her new home.
We don’t know how long Sophia may have in this world, but thanks to all of our supporters, staff and volunteers, she will have the best life possible from now until then.
by: Carole Baskin, Founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue
Update 1/29/08: Sophia is drinking well on her own, but we continue to give her IV fluids to replenish her depleted state. She is only eating a little every other day although food is offered every day. Sometimes cats are only fed on a very sporadic basis where they came from and it takes them a while to realize that they will get fresh food six days a week at Big Cat Rescue.
She has moved about her Cat-a-tat a bit, but stays close to the hay filled transport. When it rained today we were ready to go in and herd her into the transport, in case she couldn’t see the impending storm, but found she has already done so and was snuggled down in the warm shelter. We covered the top with a roof to keep it dry and left the blankets hanging to keep the rain from blowing in on her. Sophia now purrs as soon as she knows someone has approached and looks in their direction with her clouded blue eyes. She makes is clear that she is happy we came for her. Every day she seems a little bit better. Thank you everyone who made it possible.
Update 3/10/09: Sophia the cougar continues to get better every day. It has been amazing to see her recovery when we were all sure her time here would be measured in mere days. She is blind but has whiskered her way around her new home to the point that when she is walking around, you would never know that she can’t see. Only the light blue cataracts give her away. Now almost every time we see her, she is awake, listening to the sounds about her, and sitting up like you see in this photo.
Here you can see that she is yawning lazily. Notice how floppy the paws look? That is from a botched declaw job and living on concrete her whole life.
Seeing her sitting up is a far cry better than the flat-on-her-side-dead-cat-look she was exhibiting upon arrival that made us check her breathing every time we looked her way.
She has obviously discovered her big cave den and once she was no longer visiting the hay filled transport, we removed it. When you call her name, she looks in your direction and purrs. That’s what it’s all about!
Sadly Sophia died in 2010 and will be greatly missed.
All photos above were shot at Big Cat Rescue.
Tributes to Sophia the Cougar
JULY 24, 2010
We had to say goodbye to Sophia today. Her quality of life had suffered greatly due to her advancing arthritis and kidney failure. She was 18 years old. When we rescued her from Louisiana, she was in such bad shape that we never expected her to make it through the weekend. And yet, she thrived with all the love and attention we gave her. Thank you to all the volunteers who gave her the best one and a half years of her life.
Willow Hecht, Volunteer Senior Keeper
Poor feisty girl. She was a brave cat who lived through terrible things. It was a privilege to care for her, even though she usually came over to try and attack me. I’m glad that she had some comfort and kindness at BCR.
Regina Rinaldi, Volunteer Senior Keeper
oh beautiful Sophie. It is with a heavy heart and lots of tears that I say you will be missed. You were only loved and cared for the last part of your life, but I know you felt it. When she arrived at BCR, everyone thought she’d only last a few days, and to everyone’s surprise, with much love and TLC provided by us, she rallied and fought because i believe she felt the love from us. Rest in peace beautiful girl….I miss you already.
Meredith Pennino, Volunteer Keeper
RIP sweet Soph.
I hope you enjoy your renewed mobility as your cousins welcome you home.
Sherry Levesque, Volunteer Senior Partner
Bye Bye precious one – so happy our wonderful keepers were able to make the last part of your life warm, comfortable and filled with love.
Marie Schoubert, Volunteer Senior Keeper
Oh no Sophie… I was always happy to go to see you and talk to you every morning… I can’t imagine my BCR life without you… I am going to miss you so much! Now you can just relax and enjoy your freedom! I will never forget you Sophie! R.I.P.
Nanci Spires, Volunteer Keeper
Pam Rodriguez, Volunteer Partner
Thank you to all who took care of Sophie, and made her latter years peaceful.
Kym Marszal, Volunteer Keeper
Sophie go into the light that you can now see and play with all you’r friends ther all waiting for you ,you will always be warm and safe and always in my heart you wher so loved at B.C.R now and always.
Lisa Shaw, Volunteer Senior Keeper
Sophia, what a miracle you were! As Regina says, we only thought we’d be able to care for you for a short time. The determination to live that you showed everyday astonished me and I was honored to care for you. While I am so very sad I am also happy you are now free and out of pain. Take care Sophia!
Rosie Emdey, Volunteer Senior Keeper
SOFIE; You looked so good for so long, thanks to the BCR staff. I’llnever forget how you’d plod over to greetme when I’d call you. You’d look straight at me +try to touch my feet though the cage. I heard you purr. How could anyone have a bad day as they watched you play with your bowl! I’ll never forget you SOPHIE.
Sharyn Beach, Volunteer Partner
Sophie, your story touched all of our hearts. What a brave girl you were and are! We are so proud of you. Rest peacefully sweetheart.
Sue Messineo, Volunteer Senior Keeper
I Love you Sophia! I will miss you so much, but I know that you are now in a better place, pain free and happy.
Julie Hanan, Volunteer Senior Keeper
When Sophia arrived, we never expected her to survive the weekend. I didn’t even want to see her, just to have my heart broken so quickly. And yet, everyday I came in to volunteer, I was surprised to hear she was getting better and better. Though blind, I couldn’t believe how well she was able to make her way in and out of her den, over to her feeding area, and to even play with some toys in her enclosure. It was a miraculous thing to watch! She was as feisty and dangerous as just about any cougar at feeding time. I had to smile whenever I fed her or gave her daily meds because she was having the last laugh on me. Here I thought she wouldn’t make it – HA! She showed me!! She enjoyed every single day she was at Big Cat Rescue, as if she knew this was borrowed time to relish.
She made such an impression on one little girl named Sophia, who visited Big Cat Rescue on a field trip. I met this little girl at a restaurant and told her about Sophia, so she was anxious to meet her namesake. I crossed my fingers that Sophia would last until her visit. She did and the little girl’s face just lit up when I picked her up to get a good look at Sophia and how well she got around, despite her handicaps. I know it’s a moment that little girl will always hold in her heart.
What comforts us is that our cats live on, in our hearts, as well as in the hearts of countless people they touch.