WVa Sanctuary provides safe home for mountain lions and bobcat
By Rick Steelhammer
BRUCETON MILLS — Orphaned when his mother was shot by a poacher near Yellowstone National Park in 2003, Montana the mountain lion now prowls a well-fenced section of hillside next to a fast-flowing creek in the wilds of Preston County.
“He was only 10 weeks old when he came here,” said Mark Jenkins, who operates Coopers Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary. “When we picked him up at Pittsburgh Airport, he was in a little cat carrier.”
Now full-grown, with massive forearms, a taste for West Virginia whitetails and a purr that can jar fillings, Montana is one of four resident mountain lions in the state’s only officially sanctioned refuge for abused, neglected or orphaned cougars.
Jenkins watched as Montana efficiently stripped meat and sinew from a section of rib and spine donated by a nearby deer processor.
“Thanks to the processor and local hunters, we have fresh deer meat four months a year,” he said. “The rest of the time, we mainly feed them chicken quarters we have to buy. They eat both the deer and chicken bones and all.”
Orphaned along with Montana were his brother and sister, who were adopted by the Queens Zoo in New York. They were given the names Felix and Cleo in an online contest, and are now among the zoo’s star attractions.
“I think Montana’s happier here than he would have been in New York City,” said Jenkins. “But he’s our first ‘wild’ mountain lion, and it’s kind of a shame there was no way to release him back into the wild after he matured.
“Now, he’s become so accustomed to people that he really can’t be released. It wouldn’t be safe for him or for people. So he’ll be spending the rest of his life here.”
Although Jenkins has added four cougar enclosures since he opened the sanctuary with one lion in 1998, built a network of volunteers and donors, and now cares for four mountain lions and one bobcat, he looks forward to a time when his operation is no longer needed.
But as long as people keep raising mountain lions as pets (still legal in 30 states), selling them at auctions, or leaving juvenile lions orphaned in hunts or accidents, Jenkins will be making the rounds at his enclosures, doling out deer ribs and checking on the well-being of his charges.
In addition to Montana, they include:
Burton, the sanctuary’s senior resident, who was 14 months old when he arrived here in 1998 from a private zoo in the southeast, where he lived in a 10-foot-square dog kennel on a concrete floor.
Tecumseh, who was three weeks old when he arrived here a few months after Burton, and initially required bottle-feeding from Jenkins and his wife, Sheila. The baby lion had been destined for an exotic animal auction when sanctuary volunteers bought him from a breeder. Now, the huge cat enjoys rolling a beach ball — and sometimes a bowling ball — as he makes his rounds around his enclosure.
Mariah, who became a resident here in 1999 after a family that had been raising her as a pet decided that the expense and danger of keeping her wasn’t worth the effort. The mountain lioness had been living in a 20-foot dog run before coming to the sanctuary, and had stopped eating. “You could see every rib in her body,” Jenkins recalled. – advertisement –
Carrie who lived as a pet in a small pen in the Maryland suburbs for 12 years before arriving here in 2000. She died of natural causes in 2002.
The sanctuary’s newest feline resident, Jackson, is a bobcat. Jenkins said he was initially reluctant to accept the orphaned animal, found in Virginia, since his program’s focus is on mountain lions.
“But I realized it would also be an educational opportunity, since a lot of people get confused about the difference between mountain lions and bobcats,” he said.
Jenkins also had hopes of eventually releasing Jackson into the wild, but so far, the Division of Natural Resources has not approved that prospect. While Jackson is nocturnal and has less interplay with humans than the sanctuary’s lions, he still may be too acclimated to life with humans to be a successful release candidate.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas and panthers — although they are not the same species as black or spotted panthers — once roamed the mountains of West Virginia, preying mainly on deer. But the native strain of the eastern cougar is now believed to be extinct here, according to the DNR.
While there are numerous annual reports of mountain lion sightings in the state, DNR biologists generally believe those filing the reports have mistaken other animals for the big cats, or else the animals spotted were cougars that had been released from captivity.
While Jenkins said he would eventually like to see a cougar re-introduction effort made in West Virginia, public misconceptions about the animal are unlikely to allow re-introduction any time soon.
“I can’t see that happening for a long, long time,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is that mountain lions cause far fewer deaths or injuries to humans than bees or dogs.”
Jenkins, a Morgantown native who attended WVU, first got involved with big cats after pursuing a job in South Carolina, where he met his wife, and both worked as volunteers at Hollywild Animal Park near Spartanburg.
The sanctuary is located off a back road about six miles south of the Coopers Rock interchange of Interstate 68, on land settled by his great-grandparents.
Jenkins initially managed an industrial cleaning service when he moved back to West Virginia from South Carolina, but he and his wife have since built a series of log cabins for vacationers seeking a remote getaway. Five cabins are now complete with a sixth expected to open this week followed by a seventh next month.
Mountain Creek Cabins has proved popular enough that the Jenkinses are able to work at home and maintain close tabs on the adjacent sanctuary.
The Coopers Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary is a nonprofit corporation licensed by the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While drop-in visits to the sanctuary aren’t encouraged, thousands of students — from elementary to college-level — visit annually.
“After almost eight years, we’ve got to be making a difference,” Jenkins said. “If just one person from each group that visits here is convinced that we need to set aside some space for mountain lions to live in, and that it’s not a good idea to keep mountain lions for pets, then we’re having an impact.”
To contact staff writer Rick Steelhammer use e-mail or call 348-5169.
For information about Coopers Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary, visit the organization’s Web site at www.cougarsanctuary.org, or write to Route 1 Box 332-K, Bruceton Mills, WV 26525.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home to more than 150 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564
Meet our recent mountain lion cub rescues: