A few months ago the Oakland Zoo rescued three orphaned mountain lions cubs from the wild. They are part of a new exhibit called the California Trail that opens tomorrow. It’s a huge expansion that features our state’s native wildlife.
On the other side of the Bay, Zara McDonald, head of the Bay Area Puma Project, is looking for a mountain lion. She’s never seen him in person, but she knows she’s looking for a distinctive cat. Night photos show that he’s only got one functional eye. That’s how he got his nickname: One Eye.
“He’s the one mountain lion we have been able to track in Marin County over the last four years,” McDonald says. “One cat.”
She hikes up an overgrown trail in the Marin Headlands, headed for a motion sensing camera. McDonald is the president of the Bay Area Puma Project, a group that works to understand and protect big cats. The camera brings her as close as anyone can get to a mountain lion—through pictures. She’ll scour the images in hopes of seeing One Eye. But lately, she’s worried that One-Eye is dead.
“He might have been taken on a depredation permit, but he’s the only cat left that we can detect in Marin,” she says.
This is the way most mountain lions in the state die—depredation permits. California voted to ban hunting mountain lions, but about 100 mountain lions are killed each year on permits issued by California Fish and Wildlife. Permits allow people to hunt predatory animals if, for example, a mountain lion threatens humans or repeatedly kill livestock.
But McDonald hopes the number of permits will shrink; she wants people to try non-violent methods of animal deterrence before they take a mountain lion’s life. She says they’re a crucial part of a healthy ecosystem.
“The mountain lion is the last keystone species in this region. We’ve lost the grizzly bear, we’ve lost the wolf. So the lion is the last remaining large apex predator.”
Apex predators keep population numbers in check all the way down the food chain. So conservationists are concerned that mountain lions could go the way of the Grizzly. Preserving a balanced wilderness is part of the reason the Oakland Zoo is dedicating 57 acres to the California Trail, a new exhibit that will educate zoo-goers about these animals—and hopefully give them a better chance at continued survival in the wild.
“Where’s our munchkins? They're probably in the hammock it's their favorite spot…There’s one below the trees!”
Heather Paddock, a zookeeper who works with the lions, points them out. When I visit, most of California Trail is still under construction. Jackhammers rattle and big yellow diggers move earth to finish up the Grizzly exhibit behind us. But the lions—Silverado, Coloma, and Toro—are unfazed and napping right in front of our noses. They’re about a year old, but they came to the zoo as tiny cubs.
Heather points out a healthy looking mountain lion lolling in the shade of a native oak. “She came in our sickest, but as you can see she is rolling around in our hammock being adorable.”
All three cubs came to the zoo in dire straits—without their mothers, young mountain lions starve and die. Zookeepers like Paddock spent this winter nursing them back to health. They’re all doing just fine.
“She is a picture of health, she’s recovered completely,” Paddock says. “She is a big, bounding, growing mountain lion, which is pretty different from the sick little cat that was found on the side of the road!”
Depredation permits aren’t the only threat to mountain lions. In the wild, only one of two mountain lion cubs even survives. Less wild land in California means there’s less food, less territory. Mountain lions starve, and get hit by cars. Paddock thinks car strikes are what orphaned each of the cubs in the zoo.
“These guys, unfortunately, are all good examples of human-wildlife conflict,” she explains. “Cars are a big threat to adult mountain lions as humans push further into mountain areas previously wild areas.”
Now, these three mountain lions are ambassadors for their species in the manufactured wild of the zoo. When visitors meet Silverado, Coloma, and Toro, it’s an opportunity to share their story, to show humans are more likely to harm them than the other way around.
“If you don’t know what’s going on there’s no way for you to care.”
These cubs are just a few of the new inhabitants of the California Trail—there will be tons of California native wildlife. There will also be some iconic California animals that don’t live here anymore. Bison and California Grizzlies were hunted out of the state, so they’re being imported from Montana and Alaska. But California Trail is more than a living museum—it’s a partnership between the zoo and conservationist efforts. This is Amy Gotliffe, the zoo’s conservation director.
“The goal is to take that inspiration that people may have from seeing these gray wolves or family of black bears or incredibly beautiful mountain lions and teaching them to be a community that’s going to help those animals in the wild.”
The grand irony here is that as we’re talking about human expansion, zoo construction is in full swing behind us—encroaching on more wild space. The grassy hills surrounding the trail used to be part of Knowland Park, a huge undeveloped expanse of hillside beloved by local naturalists for native grasses and the threatened Alameda Whipsnake. In fact, when the Zoo proposed opening California Trail, there was pushback from environmental groups.
It’s not realistic to expect that humans will stop moving into wild territory. But, for every species represented at the California Trail, the Zoo is partnering with a conservation group to keep them wild. For example, the zoo works with organizations like the Bay Area Puma Project to relocate—rather than kill—mountain lions.
“We have a partnership with the California Dept of Fish and Wildlife where we will take a mountain lion until they find a place to release it,” Amy Gotliffe tells me.
This kind of partnership can spare depredations. But that initiative didn’t come soon enough for One Eye. McDonald can’t find any evidence that the mountain lion is still alive. It’s been almost a year since she’s caught him on a camera. That means that—according to her research—there aren’t any mountain lions left in Marin.
A group of young children play near the Zoo gift shop. It’s hard not to compare them to the mountain lion cubs. Wild space will be even scarcer by the time these kids grow up. But they may be the best hope for preserving wildlife in California.