Nicholas the mountain lion has a beautiful home waiting for him with his own pond, a rock den, a grassy area where he can run around and several other little hideaways where he can enjoy some privacy and naps.
But first the three-year-old puma will have to clear quarantine and become more comfortable with his new surroundings and new caretakers.
“He’s doing really well but he’s still very scared, he’s a very timid cat, so we’re just taking it really slow, day by day and the keepers are taking some quiet time with him,” said Bobbi Brink, the founder of San Diego County-based Lions, Tigers and Bears, Nicholas’ new home.
The golden-coated feline with an expressive face has had a tough journey to the 93-acre sanctuary that will be his permanent home.
In 2020 when he was just a cub, Nicholas was following his mother across a busy highway when both were struck by a car. Nicholas was badly injured and his mom was killed in the collision, an unfortunately common fate for members of their species as their longtime habitats are increasingly fragmented by new developments and highways.
Because they require about two years with their mothers to learn how to survive on their own, it’s almost impossible to release orphaned pumas back into the wild. Unlike, say, the orphaned orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra, who can usually be taught to successfully fend for themselves because humans can show them how to physically manipulate their surroundings, there’s no way to teach orphaned pumas how to select prey, stalk, pounce and deliver kill bites.
A sanctuary in northern California provided a home for Nicholas for about three years, but recently went bankrupt, so the staff at Lions, Tigers and Bears secured him, prepared a habitat for him and took on the Herculean task of transporting him to San Diego County.
Nicholas’ case is even more complicated because he has lasting neurological damage from the car crash that killed his mother, including a pronounced head tilt that worsens when he’s scared.
Brink told PITB it’s normal for cats like mountain lions to be spooked by the commotion and uncertainty of a move, as well as leaving everything they know behind. Nicholas is simply obeying his wild instincts, which urge him to be guarded. But he’s got a loving team of caretakers who will work with him, as well as veterinary specialists who are well versed in caring for animals with neurological damage.
“Sometimes it can take (animals like Nicholas) a month, sometimes it can take three months to build up that trust,” Brink said. “His biggest need is he’s very afraid, so we’re gonna have to work around his fear so we don’t scare him more.”
While Nicholas will have his own habitat and can keep to himself as much as he likes, recent observations of his secretive species have shown that pumas have “secret social lives,” and Nicholas will have the opportunity to meet and interact with other mountain lions if he’s comfortable with it.
Pumas — which are known by the scientific name puma concolor and are also called mountain lions, cougars, panthers, catamounts, screamers, painters, gato monte and many other names — are among the most adaptable felids in the world and range from the southernmost edge of South America to just over the Canadian border. They’re able to thrive in mountains, tropical regions, deserts, forests, human-adjacent rural areas and even in urban population centers, as the famed “Hollywood Mountain Lion” P-22 did for more than a decade in Los Angeles.
Their ability to adapt has served them well in a changing world, but they’re not immune to the pressures of human expansion.
In California their habitats have been carved up by the state’s busy and deadly highways, leaving the cats in genetically isolated pockets. Pumas who strike out in search of their own ranges are extremely vulnerable to vehicle traffic. P-22 famously crossed several of the world’s busiest highways to reach his eventual home in LA’s Griffith Park, but others like Nicholas and his mom aren’t so lucky.
Solutions like the $90 million Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, currently under construction in Los Angeles County, can connect fragmented ranges and give pumas, coyotes, foxes, deer, rabbits and other animals safe passage. But experts point out that they are just one component in a long-term solution that must include more careful zoning, fences to funnel animals toward safe crossings, and options like tunnels that run under highways, since not all animals will use overpasses.
As planners and wildlife experts figure out new ways to ensure the survival of wildlife in an increasingly crowded, human-dominated world, sanctuaries like Lions, Tigers and Bears play a crucial role by caring for the innocent animals who are injured, displaced and rescued from bad circumstances.
To learn more about Lions, Tigers and Bears or support their ongoing efforts to provide safe, stimulating and comfortable homes for wild animals, visit the non-profit’s site. To receive updates on Nicholas and the other animals at the sanctuary, follow Lions, Tigers and Bears on Instagram and Facebook. Readers who live in the California area can book guided educational tours or visit during one of the sanctuary’s special events. Thanks to Bobbi Brink and Olivia Stafford for allowing PITB to tell Nicholas’ story. All images and videos of Nicholas courtesy of Lions, Tigers and Bears.