It's 1994 and a hunter has just killed the mother Mountain Lion in Colorado so that he can steal her young cubs and sell them into the pet trade. One of the cubs is purchased by an ill advised woman who tries to make a pet of her, and flees the state to end up in Maine a year later. The cub, named Dolly, is outgrowing the woman's ability to restrain her though, as she approaches 100 lbs in her first year.
When the authorities found out they confiscated the illegally kept cub and placed her in a little roadside zoo in Lincoln, Maine, owned by Walt Libby.
Dolly lived in this reportedly substandard facility for the next 11 years. People who knew Dolly said that she was kept in a basement like environment with no windows and was never allowed to go outside. When Maine finally began to crack down on these sleazy little roadside zoos, Libby decided it wasn't worth it to upgrade his place so he sent a bear and mountain lion named Dolly to the Howell Rehab Center in Amity, Maine. It only got worse from there.
The A E Howell Wildlife Conservation Center is located in northern Maine, where winters are extremely cold. Because of the life that Dolly has been forced to live, she suffers from arthritis, and as a result, this northern climate is very painful and debilitating to her. Former volunteers, who spent 14 years working at the wildlife center shared horrific stories; these are just a few:
"The facility was well known in the community for rehabbing and releasing bears and donations came in because the public thought these bears were being released into protected habitat. What was later discovered was that the bears were being released into a hunting area where the "sportsmen" were known to bait the bears with food to insure an easy kill. Turns out this was the same sportsman's center where A E Howell would cart Dolly, in a small circus wagon, for three day stints in the gymnasium, where she would be poked and prodded at my those who get their jollies killing animals for fun."
"During one of these shows a three year old boy walked up to the mountain lion and asked the elderly volunteer a question. When she leaned over to hear the boy, A E Howell poked Dolly with his cane so that she lunged toward the docent; all teeth and claws and barely missed grabbing her from behind. All the while the owner laughed uproariously."
"A coyote was frozen in place last winter because the facilities offer such poor shelter from the cold. Rather than taking the effort to free the coyote he was shot in the head by the owner."
"When animals died they were sold to a local taxidermist for hundreds of dollars. Rehab animals were often kept in cages, even after they had healed and were ready to be released because they were more valuable as exhibit pieces and for their dead bodies when they succumbed to the relentless winters. Some of the rehab animals were bred when it was discovered that inbreeding caused color morphs that the owner found curious."
Dolly had been moved from one appalling place to another. She spent the next 7 years in a small shack, 15 feet x 20 feet, made of particle board, with no insulation or heat. There was just one window at the end of the room, where visitors would stand and gawk at her misery. She lies on filthy straw on a dirt floor because no one can enter the room to clean it or change the bedding. She has an outside enclosure 7 x 15, but she needs to jump up 3 feet through an elevated guillotine door leading outside. Because she is debilitated with arthritis, she cannot jump the three feet, and therefore has no no way to get out into her small outside enclosure.
Visitors might shake their head, and think, "what a pity," but no one ever spoke up for her, except for her caregivers, and they had nearly given up after years of being ignored. Not one person ever took the time to post a review on TripAdvisor about the dismal conditions at the Howell Wildlife Conservation Center. From viewing the inspection reports at USDA, not one inspector ever bothered to document her miserable life. In all the years that Dolly spent in dark, dank, freezing cold cages, not one government official ever stepped forward to end her suffering until now. Not once, in the past 19 years had anyone called Big Cat Rescue to tell us about this precious, captive cougar. Caregivers were told that A E Howell had powerful political connections and that is why his USDA reports were always compliant and his rehab license had never been revoked, despite the many violations they had reported, such as breeding and selling the wildlife in his possession.
Last winter Dolly almost died of dehydration as her water froze because of the sub-standard care and housing. Caregivers say that this is common for the animals there. The volunteers wear picks on their boots to make it across the frozen, snow covered grounds. They have to break the ice off the water bowls with a hammer for the animals to drink, but the water quickly freezes back over during days of prolonged, sub zero weather. A E Howell is reported to be elderly, ill and irresponsible when it comes to making sure the animals are cleaned, watered and fed properly.
On January 30, 2012 Big Cat Rescue was alerted that the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department wanted to send Dolly to a real sanctuary. Big Cat Rescue contacted Geri Vistein, a Conservation Biologist and Richard Hoppe, Regional Biologist for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to let them know that Dolly was welcome here in Tampa for her final years. We scrambled into high gear to make arrangements for a vet to take a look at her and issue a health certificate and we obtained the Florida import permit in less than 24 hours because her situation was so heartbreaking and dire.
We had a beautiful enclosure all ready for Dolly; with an underground den, a big hill from which she would be able to survey her cougar neighbors, and platforms, trees, bushes and grass. It had been Missouri Cougar's cat-a-tat until she had died from bone cancer. We told Cody, Missouri's life long mate, that there would soon be a new "girl" in town next door.
It is a common misconception to think that if someone is abusing a big cat in the U.S. that the government can or will do anything about it. If the government does anything, it usually takes six years or more to slowly wind through the judicial process. Richard Hoppe knew that Dolly didn't have that much time and said he felt certain he could get A E Howell to sign our contract releasing Dolly to Big Cat Rescue.
We found a local vet, Dr. Coville, who corresponded with our vet, Dr. Liz Wynn, to make sure that we would have the right drugs and a licensed practitioner in Maine to oversee the rescue. We would also need a health certificate for Dolly to enter Florida so Dr. Coville was preparing to obtain that for us as well. Geri Vistein put us in touch with the two long time caregivers to have them describe the doors, access ways and other issues we would encounter so that we would be sure to have everything necessary to try and load her without tranquilization. In order to accommodate the schedules of the wildlife officers, the Maine vet and the owner, we set a date of February 16 to have our rescue crew arrive in Amity, Maine. Three Big Cat Rescuers would leave Tampa on Valentine's Day to make the 1,700 mile trip, by switching drivers pretty much straight through to Maine.
Richard Hoppe drove our contract to the rehab center on February 6 and was disgusted and dismayed at what he found.
Dolly could not walk. She could barely stand, and when she did she was so feeble, shaking in the cold, that all she could do was fall back over into her own waste. Richard Hoppe called the rehab center's primary vet to ask when she had been seen last. Dr. Arnott said that he had prescribed Glucosamine in mid December for her advanced arthritis and the staff swore that they had been giving it to her, but her condition had only continued to deteriorate. The Regional Biologist was told by the vet that Dolly had reached the end and that it would be cruel to make her hang on for help to come. He felt certain the move would kill her, if she didn't die on her own before we could get there. The temperature was 3 degrees that day.
Not ready to concede defeat I relayed a few cases (see video below) where cats were at the very end of their rope when we arrived and yet managed to have some very good years here once we brought them back to Easy Street. I sense that Mr. Hoppe is a compassionate man, and that he wanted to believe that Dolly could survive until we arrived, but he was committed to do as the vet had suggested. These are the experts that he has to deal with every day and I can understand why he feels compelled to do as they say. I think the vet has the best interest of Dolly in his heart. He doesn't want to see her suffer any further and it certainly isn't up to us to second guess his opinion. She's 19 and that's very old for a mountain lion.
On the very day that her death was determined, Texas introduced a bill that would ban the private possession of big cats. Last year Ohio did so. The worst states in the country for allowing the rampant trade in big cats have always been, FL, OH and TX in that order. Since the day that Dolly's mom was killed and Dolly and her litter mates sold into the exotic pet trade back in 1994, nearly a dozen states have passed bans or partial bans. In 2003 the Captive Wildlife Safety Act passed unanimously in Congress, making it illegal to sell or transport a big cat, like Dolly, across state lines as a pet. There is a strong trend toward ending the abuses that Dolly suffered. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act would put an end to this sort of abuse. That would be a federal ban on the private possession of big cats.
While we are heartbroken to not be able to give Dolly those final days, weeks, months or years of quiet warmth in the Florida sunshine we have been forever touched by this mountain lion named Dolly. Somewhere out there her siblings have likely endured similar fates. She had a story to tell and we want to be sure that you heard it. Now that you have, we hope that you will be the voice for the thousands of wild cats, like Dolly, who continue to be bred for life in cages, exploited, abandoned and abused. Speak up for them at CatLaws.com
Note: No one knows for sure how Dolly was taken from the wild or how many siblings survived, if any. What we do know is that her first owner had obtained her from the wild in Colorado and the rest is based on witness accounts of Dolly's life. Photos are from this Mountain Lion rescue in 2005. We have offered to have Dolly cremated and her ashes sent to Florida so that she will not be sold to a taxidermist to be made into a den decoration.
Update June 16, 2013: We were startled to hear that Popcorn Park announced in their June newsletter that they had rescued Dolly the mountain lion on Mar 8, 2013, nearly a month after we had been told that she had been euthanized. When her former caregiver found out, she asked to send a donation to Popcorn Park for Dolly on June 4, 2013 but was told that the cat had already died on June 1st from bloat.