Sierra, a full-grown cougar, had come to us more than two years earlier, when the breeder who’d sold us our first male cub asked if we were open to taking another big cat. These mountain lions were many generations in captivity and hadn’t been taken from the wild, but Sierra had been neglected to the point of abuse and removed from her previous home. That’s all we needed to know, and we became a two-cat family.
My husband, Allen, built a thirty-two-foot by thirty-two-foot enclosure for our cats, divided into two equal sections by a chain-link wall in the middle. A door in the dividing wall gave us the option of turning them in together. We left large Douglas fir trees growing throughout the space, with the chain-link roof cut out to fit around their trunks. Allen built a couple of platforms several feet off the ground, where the cats could lie in the sun and survey theirkingdom. He dug underground dens for privacy as well as for warmth in the winter. Sierra didn’t accept Spunky, our half-grown male, so each of the cats had their own den and a large space to run and play.
Sierra’s previous home had housed her in a small, gravel-floored kennel, and the pads of her feet were sore and raw from constant pacing. Instead of receiving the raw meat big cats need, she’d been fed dry dog food, and her coat reflected the poor diet.
If Allen approached Sierra’s enclosure, she ran to the far side, snarling, hissing, and backing into the corner. She snapped and swatted at him, so he gave her space and time to adjust. He spent dozens of hours outside her natural enclosure, sitting silently or talking softly, before finally stepping inside the door and sinking onto the ground. Weeks passed before Sierra quit crouching in fear or running to the other side of her home, and more time went by before she allowed Allen to touch her.
The vet advised against spaying Sierra, as it could cause a hormonal imbalance. But the cougar-screams she emitted while in heat wore on us, so we decided breeding her might be a better option. Eventually, Sierra came to trust and accept Allen, but we had no idea how that trust had deepened into love until Sierra gave birth to her first litter of cubs.
That day, I noticed Sierra hadn’t been out of her underground den for a couple of hours. Rather than exhibiting the normal pacing she’d been doing the past couple of days, she’d stayed hidden from sight. Because she was an inexperienced mother, we couldn’t predict how she’d be with her little ones, so Allen was prepared to intervene, if necessary.
“Allen, you’d better check on Sierra,” I called to my husband. “I think she might be having her cubs.” Moments later, the sound of his rapid footsteps coming down the steps emphasized his excitement. Sierra was his own special project.
During the fifteen years of our marriage, most of the animals we’d owned were mine or our kids’. That changed with the arrival of our big cats.
“I’ll take a look,” Allen replied and jogged up the slight rise to her kennel. He unlocked the door and stepped in, carefully closing it behind him. He watched for a few minutes before speaking. “You’re right. She’s in her den and not coming out.” I stayed outside the chain-link enclosure and kept quiet, because Sierra was a one-man cat and didn’t like women. The last thing we wanted was a spooked, upset mountain lion trying to give birth. Allen lay flat on his stomach and shone his flashlight into the den. “I think she’s already had her babies,” he called over his shoulder. “I see only one. I’m going in a little farther. She might be lying on one of them.” His shoulders disappeared, and he remained there for several minutes. Then he slowly backed out. “There are two cubs. I’m going to stay close but give her some space. They look okay, but I’d feel better waiting awhile.”
Allen settled onto the ground near Sierra’s den. Fifteen minutes or so passed, then Sierra poked out her head with a newborn, still-damp kitten in her mouth. She glanced at Allen, then headed in the opposite direction and began to pace, apparently unsure what to do with this little bit of fluff. Allen took the opportunity to crawl into the den and check on the other baby. “It looks smaller than the other one,” his voice drifted out to where I sat on a stump outside the enclosure.
“Do you think it’s healthy?” “Yeah, I think so. It just looks a little underdeveloped.” He backed out of the den and scooted away from the opening. “I’m going to keep an eye on her. I don’t want her hurting one.” Poor Mama didn’t know what the little creatures were; worse yet, she had no clue what to do with them. Finally, she deposited the larger cub on the fir needles and headed back underground.
Easing up off the forest floor, Allen walked over quietly and scooped up the baby. He met Sierra at the door of her den as she crawled out with the second cub in her mouth. Holding out the baby, Allen showed it to Sierra, then he crawled partway back into her den and deposited the little one inside. This cycle of behavior continued for some time, with Sierra repeatedly bringing out each of the two babies, carrying them around for several minutes, and dropping them, and then Allen picking them up and returning them to the safety of the den, before Sierra finally calmed down and stayed inside with her cubs. Allen checked on the new mother throughout the night, and I kept an eye on her the next day, with no repetition of her nervous behavior. But something new transpired on Allen’s arrival home. Sierra always reacted when he got out of the car and called her name each afternoon. She’d chirp and answer him repeatedly, until Allen went into her enclosure and scratched behind her ears and she rubbed against his legs in welcome. Often, he’d stay for thirty minutes, visiting with her, sitting on the ground beside her or on a nearby stump or large rock.
A few days after the cubs’ birth, when Allen sat on the ground, the big cat trotted back to her den and returned with a kitten in her mouth. I’d brought our two children up to the enclosure in hope of seeing the babies, but I got a bit nervous when the new mother seemed to be repeating her bizarre behavior of a few days before. But instead of pacing, she walked to where Allen sat and gently laid the tiny, spotted cub on his lap. Then she went back into the den and returned with the second baby, depositing that one, too, on his lap. As the kids and I gazed in silent astonishment, Sierra sank down on the ground, laid her head against Allen’s leg, and began to purr. Allen sat entranced, in near disbelief at the behavior of his big cat. The endless hours he’d spent sitting on the soft ground of her enclosure had returned a magnificent reward. A creature rarely seen in the wild and feared by humans for centuries had finally grown beyond her fear of people enough to trust one man and to share her family with the man who’d won her heart.