Lions thriving at Wildlife Rescue
KYLA (PICTURED) and her brother Kuma will spend their life at the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue after surviving horrific abuse as cubs.
Liza Gross/Special to the Index-Tribune
So far this year, the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue has cared for more than 1,200 creatures, from skunks and squirrels to bobcats and birds. About 90 percent end up at the Sebastopol-based organization after a bad interaction with their human neighbors, but few of those encounters are as heart-wrenching or violent as what Kuma and Kyla experienced.
It was August of 2008 when a concerned citizen came forward with a chilling story of abuse. The whistleblower told officials at the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) that five men had been bragging about killing a mountain lion in the foothills of Napa County. Even worse, the witness had seen pictures and videos of the men torturing the lion’s two young cubs, which were found hiding by the mother’s carcass after she was shot.
Armed with information about the suspects, wardens with the department headed to San Jose. They discovered the young female cub, now called Kyla, was being kept as a pet, tied up in a doghouse in the backyard where she was only given cows milk to eat. A veterinarian found she had a broken leg, the result of twisting the bone hard enough to break it.
When asked about the male kitten, which rescuers named Kuma, the suspects admitted they tied it up and left it in Napa. CDGF officials set out to the scene of the crime, armed with hound dogs trained to track mountain lions. Settled into a pile of rocks near where the mother lion was shot, they found Kuma with a brutally mangled paw. Veterinarians later determined it was the result of a bullet wound that left the foot bloodied and broken; it needed to be amputated.
“After five days of separation and surgery, I decided to reunite the brother and sister. Each kitten was depressed, traumatized and distraught,” said CDFG veterinarian Pam Swift, who performed the amputation. “To my surprise, the female immediately went into the cage of the male and hugged him. I have never seen anything like this before and was delighted to see the immediate bonding that took place. From this point on, the recovery process improved tremendously.”
CDGF provided the initial care, but long-term they looked to the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue for help. The problem was, the small organization wasn’t permitted or prepped for animals of this size.
“Our biggest animals were coyotes and bobcats, and you’re talking about 24 pounds versus 100 to 110 pounds,” said Doris Duncan, the rescue’s executive director who is also a Sonoma resident.
After securing permits, the organization immediately began to build an enclosure suitable for the cats for the rest of their lives. They found unlikely support from the men who originally inflicted the abuse. Under a unique agreement between the rescue and the Napa County District Attorney’s office, the men were sentenced to perform community service building the lions’ enclosure, and were ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution to cover some of the construction costs.
“The prosecutor asked me about it, and I said, ‘I think that’s really going to be difficult for the volunteers and for me,’” Duncan said, until she considered it a potential teaching moment. “We had a unique opportunity to be role models and be ambassadors for the care and treatment of wildlife.”
Duncan said the men began working alongside volunteers from the Army Corps of Engineers, and soon were asking if they could bring their children to the rescue.
Duncan agreed, and even personally took the children on a tour of the facility to see the animals.
“Ultimately, they learned through their own children about the importance of these animals,” Duncan said. “It’s easy to persecute and condemn people, it’s the human way. But it’s important to rise above that.”
The habitat cost a total of $58,000 to build, meaning the rescue had to foot $28,000 of the bill itself. Over their lifetime, the cats will need an additional $30,000 in care at least. Duncan said it’s a continual struggle to make ends meet at the facility, where operation costs exceed $300,000 annually but donations last year topped out at $110,000.
“We’re struggling to keep the doors open next year,” Duncan said.
The rescue has learned to get creative to cut down costs. In an effort to keep the mountain lions on their natural diet of deer, the organization reached out to the county’s Animal Care and Control, which picks up the deer that are hit by cars. The department now brings those carcasses to the rescue for the mountain lions, saving hundreds of dollars a month in food costs.
Four years in, the cats have settled into their forever home, where they’ll act as ambassador animals when school groups come to visit. Duncan said the lions remain wild and will never be handled by humans, but continue to serve a vital role in educating the public about coexisting peacefully with wildlife.
“They’re just so beautiful and majestic, they really take people’s breath away,” Duncan said.
But the lions are only two of the hundreds of animals that reside at the rescue. Just this summer, the rescue opened a new American river otter enclosure, and is in the process of fundraising to build a habitat for the many birds of prey it takes in each year. In addition to caring for sick and injured animals, the rescue helps residents of Sonoma County humanely remove animals from their homes; it offers a variety of educational programs and tours; and it was recently certified to assist in aiding wildlife after oil spills.
The organization is always seeking donations, and also has a wish list of items that can be purchased at Amazon.com. The rescue also needs new board members to help develop the organization.
To plan a tour of the rescue, donate to the cause or learn more about the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, visit scwildliferescue.org or call 992-0274.