Saying Goodbye – A Tribute To Spinner

I read the following quote last year and for some reason it sat in the back of my mind. “The trouble is – you think you have time.” It’s a little cliché, but profoundly simple in its meaning and would become more so as the events of the past few months unfolded. I consider myself to be proactive, but like everyone I will put off things thinking I have time to do it later. Time to finish a project, time to make a decision, time to pursue a dream or time to spend with those who are important in our lives – human or animal.

In September the time I thought I had with my cat Spinner would be suddenly cut short bringing everything in my life to a halt, and literally breaking my heart in the process.

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Spinner 2006 – He knew how to work a good photo

I adopted Spinner in 2005 from Toronto Animal Services where he had come in as a ‘stray’ (for his back story check out my guest blog post about Spinner on Katzenworld). He was a very special and unique cat – physically he was a handsome stunner with the personality to match. He fit into our already two cat household and became good friends and adopted brother to our beautiful and gentle house-panther Simon.

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Spinner and Simon enjoying the cat bed and the sun

In 2009, our tabby Cleo passed away and in 2010 Simon, both had lived to 18 years old. Simon’s passing was really difficult but Spinner was there to help me through it. When you lose a pet you realize how precious your time is with them so Spinner now the OC (only cat) was spoiled. Spinner was a special cat in many ways, beautiful on the outside with a funny, sassy, smart, talkative, loving personality that won hearts and had me wrapped around his little paws.

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Sleeping in his favorite chair

Spinner was the cat that was always there, literally. He ran to the door when I got home, looked for me when I wasn’t there and slept by my side every night. If I was on my laptop he would settle in between the laptop and me resting his chin on my arm. If I was on the couch he was there and if I moved he followed. He loved to be held, would wrap his arms around you in a hug and enjoyed jumping on your back when you bent over. He loved belly rubs and purred all the time – he sounded like a tiny motor boat. He was a super relaxed cat and enjoyed the attention from people around him. Whenever someone new met him they couldn’t help but fall in love.

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All tucked in for bed – the cold months were made for cuddling

No matter what kind of day you had Spinner made it better and when things weren’t going well, they were made better by being around him. Spinner was my best friend and knowing he was home made coming home better. There was no reason to think that his time would be cut short as his recent senior wellness check at the vet this spring showed all was in excellent order, for a 13 year young cat he was doing great. Then, just after the September long weekend – he stopped eating and I booked an appointment for the vet the next day.

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The first vet diagnosed him with pancreatitis but a trip the Vet Emergency and X-ray the next day revealed that he had a large mass in his chest cavity. The vet said it was likely cancer and due to the location no traditional means of treatment would help. They also had no way to know for sure how bad it was without a biopsy which they were reluctant to do because of the location. Immediately the option was to provide palliative care – which meant fluids, vitamins, sub-q and an appetite stimulant to get him eating and to keep him comfortable. At that point I don’t think the diagnosis fully sank in but I will say Spinner was handling things better than me.

Driving home that night from the vet it started to process and I began to research other options and booked an appointment to see a holistic vet for the following week. In the meantime Spinner perked up the next day and started to eat so I promised him we would try to do everything to help him as long as he wanted – that if we could cure him we were going to do it, he was going to be the ‘miracle’ story you read about. That afternoon emotionally and physically exhausted we had a nap, Spinner squeezed in between me and a pillow and purred – it would be a special memory that I will always hold in my heart.

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Enjoying a spot of sun

Spinner did well for a week but then he stopped eating again. I had tried everything to get him to eat on his own but as a temporary measure the syringe feedings would help him get by as his system started to settle. As long as he was drinking, going to the bathroom normally and maintaining healthy weight the vet said that we could keep him comfortable and in the meantime a trip to the oncologist was recommended for the final opinion on the mass.

Spinner was trying, I could tell and I knew he was trying for me. He had become a different cat in a very short time, he stopped playing and took to sleeping under the bed or on top of it he began spending less and less time with me. He showed little interest in anything except sleeping and taking his food, drinking or using his litter box. There were however many good moments where I was hopeful the support was working to build his immune system and he would have the miraculous cure that I was hoping for. Whatever he wanted or showed interest in he would get – cat grass and spider plant to munch on, his favorite treat of peanut butter and trips outside for fresh air. During this time I was a mess and when I did cry it was a wail – a sound of deep despair, it was the sound that I can only describe as coming from my soul. It was hard to keep it together but I was able to function normally by focusing on caring for him. When I broke down Spinner would often come out from under the bed lay down on the floor, look at me and start to purr – we had many cuddle sessions like this which would last for a short time before he would go back under the bed again.

The trip to the oncologist sadly, did not go as I’d hoped, in fact it was worse than I or the regular vet had thought – Spinner had multiple tumors in his liver, pancreas as well as the one in his chest cavity. The oncologist also found a lump on his shoulder bone which she suspects is where the cancer started. It was a rare and very aggressive cancer and there was no treatment, no cure, keeping him comfortable until he said it was time was the only option and that it would likely be a few weeks. The official word that there would be no cure, no remission was devastating, he was only 13.

In under five weeks Spinner had declined but he didn’t start to deteriorate quickly until late September early October. A week before I made the call to a vet to discuss at home euthanasia he did two things that he hadn’t done in over a month – he went to the window to look outside and he sat on my lap, stared into my eyes then jumped off. I realized that all this time he was preparing me for life without him, even though he slept by my head every night he was sending me a message and the signs were clear. I was worried that I wouldn’t know, but there was one clear sign that would help me make the decision that all pet owners dread and even fear.

He was such a gentle, patient cat and was unbelievable through everything and I never wanted to let him go, however I couldn’t watch him get worse I had to let him go. Six years ago I had to make that choice for Simon and the memory of that experience brought back all the emotions, but I don’t know if that was a good thing. I knew what was coming, the pain, sadness, emptiness… the only difference was I had already started grieving for Spinner before he was gone and it had been happening for weeks.

I made the call to the vet to look at booking an appointment and even though I knew it was the right and compassionate choice it did not make it any easier. During my initial call I didn’t commit to a day or time instead I took a day to decide and had a conversation with Spinner. I told him that I loved him and that it was OK for him to go home, that he would see Simon, maybe Cleo to and any of his friends he knew before he came into my life. I was sorry I couldn’t help him and I would miss him more than I could ever say – we should have had many more years together.

I stayed home on Spinners last day, which was beautiful and sunny. He had one last meal in the morning and I told him that he would no longer have to endure syringe feedings. We had a nice visit outside in the sun where he walked around the garden sniffed the flowers, plants and fresh air. When he was ready he walked back inside to rest. Some of my friends who had known Spinner came by for a visit and to say goodbye and of course Spinner being a social cat made sure to come out and greet them all.

The vet arrived at the scheduled time and as we prepared and went over how everything was going to transpire, Spinner calmly lay on the same pillow where he had slept every night for the past month surrounded by his friends and with me by his side. Surprisingly I had stopped crying earlier in the day and this strange calmness came over me. As I spoke to Spinner and gave him tons of kisses he purred. He purred right up until the sedative took effect and his eyes closed. On October 13 at approximately 8:30 pm he took his last breath and his heart slowed to a stop.

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Our final moments together – Spinner was beautiful and peaceful

Before we wrapped Spinner up in a towel with his favorite toy mouse and placed him in a fleece blanket lined basket that the vet provided I noticed something. His eyes had shut completely and there was a single tear in the corner of one of his eyes. I wiped it away and we gently wrapped him up placing him in the basket. A part of me knows he did not want to leave and I like to think that the single tear was his way of saying goodbye, that he was just as sad at having to leave me as I was having to let him go.

The next days following were hard, very hard and the reality of his loss hit me. His absence was at times unbearable and knowing he wouldn’t be there when I came home was really difficult. It has been up and down since, some days it is fine and other times it hits me, but I guess that is all part of the grieving process. While it does get better there are some losses you never really get over, they stay with you, take a part of you and even change you, I know this was one.

Spinner will be gone a month next week and before now I hadn’t been able to write about him or determine how to pay tribute to a very special cat whom I adored beyond words. I am lucky to have tons of photos and video of him, so I put together this video to showcase his beautiful personality and moments throughout his life with me.

Spinner I hope you are watching and with me still, thank you for being part of my life.

Special thanks to Dr. Banks of Midtown Mobile Veterinary Services for taking the time to talk to me about at home euthanasia and providing the information that I needed to make a very difficult decision and to Dr. Ellis for her professionalism, kindness and compassion with Spinner on his last night.

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors

If you are the most famous mountain lion in LA (arguably all of North America), have safely crossed two of the busiest freeways in the U.S., been immortalized in a now iconic photo in front of the Hollywood sign by Steve Winter, and, have become the spokes cat for your species and the center of a national campaign to help wildlife, you would think that you had nothing left on your list to accomplish. If however you happen to be P-22, it’s only logical that you end up gracing the cover of a book.

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The enormous pressure wildlife faces from humans and human development means they either learn to adapt to survive or, as we have seen with many creatures, vanish. We are bombarded almost on a daily basis with these negative and depressing stories which for many, including myself, can be very overwhelming. Instead of focusing on those aspects which we often feel helpless to change, When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors does the exact opposite by highlighting the inspirational – what is being done to help wildlife and what can work if we decide to take action. Today it is not only the scientist and researcher making a difference it is people like you and me, the everyday citizen who will ultimately play a key role in helping wildlife prosper and survive.

Being one of my most anticipated reads of this year, I reached out to author and California Director for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Beth Pratt-Bergstrom to talk more about her book, wildlife in California, the handsome cover boy P-22 and the campaign to get the worlds largest wildlife crossing built.

Lets start off with where you at with the Save LA Cougars Campaign (which for readers who don’t know is the national campaign to raise funds to build a safe and desperately needed wildlife crossing at LA’s 101 freeway)

It is going forward, the crossing is going to get built and there is a lot going on. Right now we are at the planning and compliance stage, which is funded through early 2017. We need to raise 10 million by middle of 2017, then balance by mid 2019 to have the crossing built by 2021.

We are having P-22 Day and Urban Wildlife Week October 16 through to the 22 to raise awareness for the crossing fundraiser and to announce leadership gifts – big online fundraising. Before hand I will be hiking the same route P-22 took (40-miles) from the Santa Monica Mountains to where he has been living in Griffith Park. This event will be a big milestone in the Save LA Cougars campaign.

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If you live in LA be sure to check out P-22 Day and Urban Wildlife Festival October 16-22 – Image P-22 Mountain Lion of Hollywood Facebook.

Interestingly there has been a study released that has confirmed what we have been saying – there is empirical evidence that if we don’t do something now and help mountain lions in California, in 50 years it certain they will go extinct. So it’s like ‘we told you so’ it’s both good and bad, we have to get the crossing built we have no time to lose. The best worst case scenario is mountain Lions go extinct in 50 years if we don’t, this is based on facts from modeling but it doesn’t take into account other mountain lion fatalities from vehicles and rodenticides poisoning. In the case of rodenticides people are seeing what mountain lions and other animals have suffered and want to make change. In California there is something here, a value and call to action, and I hope other people in other places can do the same.

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors is positive in its message and very accessible – meaning anyone can read it. How important were these aspects when you were writing the book?

The goal was to make it about the positive as all of us are exposed to so much of the negative, I get battered down with the bad news, so I wanted it to focus on what was working and how you get people inspired. For instance, I was inspired by Born Free and being taken whale watching by my dad – It is the good news that inspires people. This also helps getting people who aren’t already converted as it is easy to get burnt out.

It was also important to make it accessible –  not academic. We want people to learn about science, but we do this by tricking them into learning about it. It is difficult for science based organizations like NWF and researchers to be non-scientific like when I first mentioned to National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich about ‘P22 dating’ he said please they (mountain lions) don’t date…but they eventually got it..that it makes it easier for to the average person to relate to the predicament P-22 is in, which is the lonely bachelor looking for love.

Besides being an awesome cover boy, mountain Lion P-22 plays a major role in the book

The book is actually the reason why I work on the Save LA Cougars Campaign – it was a very different book initially, then when P22 came on the scene it changed the whole book. I thought that this was the story it was about urban interface. P-22 shouldn’t be where he is but I had this great epiphany – who am I to judge if this is the only way the cat can live? We need to share our human spaces with wildlife, if we don’t share our spaces they aren’t going to be here. The study of wildlife in urban environments say they are stressed…but so are people! it doesn’t mean that wildlife can’t live there. This is a big shift and it’s catching ground a lot, LA is leading the way. I use it as a challenge – if LA can do it what’s anyone’s excuse.

P22 is a modern lion in many ways, including being socially savvy, he fits perfectly into a media obsessed culture

He is the reason that the film The Cat that changed America is being made. The headline is a modern story that people can relate to on social media, it is about having a day-to-day relationship with wildlife and he has shown that wild predators can live rather peacefully with us. People can relate to P-22, it has set this model and the world has been watching. In my mind he is the cat that changed the world, people are asking ‘what’s going on in LA with a mountain lion…and they are OK with this?’.

He is figuring out how to adapt to human interface  – not every mountain lion could be this successful in Griffith Park, but P-22 is a modern cat and has worked it out. He also shows us they are individuals and have personalities like people and that is a game changer, he is the right cat for the right time to be an ambassador for his species. You have P-22 who has adapted to LA, and LA who has adapted, and for the two to coincide is remarkable.

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P22 last year looking good after recovering from a bad case of mange – Photo National Park Service

There is the message in the book that mountain lions aren’t the big scary threat that media so often makes them out to be

I am all for anthropomorphism, they are not exactly like us but they are like us, however there is a balance  –  we want people to be familiar with their typical behavior but also know when to be scared. We want people to learn about them and to know that mountain lions aren’t waiting ready to jump out of the woods at any moment at people. If you become familiar with these animals and build a relationship that is a good thing. I think that’s where science has done a disservice in the traditional mode in teaching us that they are just as numbers, but you don’t want to go to far into familiarity and have people feeding them and petting them or thinking they are pets – they are not pets.

So it’s a fine balance and we want the public to establish a relationship with them but doing this by maintaining a distance recognizing that and respecting that they are wild animals as well. We tend to go to far down either extreme when we over-estimate or underestimate the risk – they are cute or they are vicious murderers – no they are not in fact, they rather not eat us. It’s a fine balance that we need to strike if wildlife is going to have a future – it can’t be hands off and it can’t be that we are in utter terror all the time.

Predators like mountain lions were demonized by the first settlers, why do you think that mentality still exists even when we know more about them today?

I try to sympathize with people who didn’t know anything about them. I live in mountain lion country, every wild animal that lives in California is in my yard, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, etc…but I live in a secure house, have a fenced yard and I don’t have a farm. So I sympathize to a point and I get why it was dark and scary at the time of the first settlers, although if they had listened to Native Americans it would have been different.

If you don’t know about mountain lion behavior and see a snarling cat near you although he is probably not a danger, you are going to think he is. I think it (fear) is innate in some people, however most are fascinated and in awe with wildlife  – seeing wildlife is remarkable for most people. I don’t know why at this point the fear still exits giving the relative comfort we live in and the given the risks we should be frightened of everyday… we actually should be shuttering in our feet everyday about cars more than mountain lions. It is a very emotional thing, wolves are also a great example of how these myths have persisted. They have been demonized for no reason and this hatred has persisted even though when you look at rate of attacks on humans which is almost nothing and livestock depredation rates disease and domestic dogs take out more.

We are creating new myths and P-22 is part of that story telling, that is what matters now. We have science to back it up, but how we actually feel about predators like P-22 matters more than the science so he is forging new grounds for mountain lions.

Your book (and Heart Of A Lion by William Stolzenburg) are part of a new movement giving people a new way to look at these animals

There is a whole new genre about animals in general it is really challenging preconceptions about what an animal is  – books pointing to science telling us what many of already know. I am a person of science so you do want the rigorous science but I am glad it’s coming out. Look at Black Fish, that was science based and looked what happened the Sea world model collapsed and people look at killer whales differently. Challenging the preconceived notion that animals just eat and mate and have no emotional lives beyond that – it’s basically what animal lovers already knew but it’s great to have the science behind it.

Your book features a lot of other wildlife in California as well as how people are helping

P-22 is definitely the lead story but I could have done 10 volumes because there are so many great stories. The take away is the wildlife crossing is a grand sweeping and visionary, it will be the largest in the world when built – other stories illustrate what stuff  you can do in your backyard and business, it’s not just all about grand projects – we collectively make a difference for wildlife doing some easy things. For example the Facebook Foxes, they made a home on campus for the foxes and it is one of my favorite stories. They don’t pet or feed them but they just accepted them as part of the campus and the foxes have adapted are comfortable, it’s a success story.

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Move fast and fox trot – (photo credit @mzajko) Facebook Foxes page

Another favorite story is the Marine Core who raise baby desert tortoise and train 30,000 Marines a year on tortoise conservation when they come through boot camp. So many simple stories like city of Martinez who let the beavers stay…regular citizens doing things, it shows it’s simple things we can do collectively to make a huge difference for wildlife. We are restoring habitat in our own backyards that has been lost and the conservation impact on that can be high if we all do it.

Like Leo Politi Elementary the school that transformed a concrete pad into a wildlife friendly habitat, it’s a great story – save wildlife and ourselves. It’s like if mountain lions disappear and the Eco-system is out of whack and what’s next – we have collapse. The school built a community and it benefited kids, test scores went up and their health improved and even their parents got involved – it built a community. It connected wildlife and people they are the perfect illustration of how all of it works together.

The message is people in California want wildlife in their cities, but other cities are doing things to like Chicago who passed an ordinance to looking at non-lethal solution for urban coyotes, Austin Texas where the NWF has a community wildlife certification program, Baltimore is a certified wildlife city doing a lot with city gardening. I think there are a lot of signs of hope and it seems to be catching on, lets hope it becomes a real movement.

What is up next now that your book is out and P-22 Day is scheduled?

My job is a mix of programs, research, fundraising and continuing working on projects for cougars, foxes, pika, fissures and frogs to push more initiatives forward and help to fundraise. My sweet spot is engaging people and getting out in the field, I want to be out there to get people involved, but the biggest project is getting the crossing built but we are going to get there.

Will I write another book? I’d love to, as I have many more stories, it will just be under different circumstances when I have more time!

What are your personal experiences with mountain lions?

I have seen them four times, most out while hiking, but I have been very lucky and seen one collard and up close. My favorite sighting was one with parents who moved 2 miles down the road from me. My mom has a bird bath and one night they called me up to say they saw a mountain lion take a drink from the bird bath and I said no they don’t do that in full view people, this happens for 2 nights. On the third night I go back and sure enough there the cat was! It was remarkable but sad as the drought at the time was so bad that he had to go to a house in daylight to drink. He wanted nothing to do with us, he just wanted water.

Finally what are your thoughts mountain lions outside of California

I see signs of hope that other places are recognizing the importance and benefits of predators like mountain lions and wolves but there is still  a long way to go, but I am seeing signs of hope. Wildlife is also making tentative first steps (like the cat that is profiled in Heart of A Lion) my hope is that other places come to the realization that it is possible to live among predators, we can achieve balance and they need to be an integral part of the landscape for Eco-system health.

Values are shifting and we will get there for practical reason like the study that shows if you bring mountain lions back you can help prevent Lyme disease. I am hopeful even though it is sometimes hard, but I do think people no matter where you live, have an awe and connection to wildlife that will prevail at some point.

I really do think views are changing we already see that in some places and, I think this will be a non-issue in 50 to 100 years in most places.

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors is an inspirational and educational read. It is filled with interesting accounts and stories (including what African Lion poop has to do with bears in Yosemite) for the dedicated city-dweller or nature lover, no matter you live. It is part of my Recommended Reading List and can be purchased at online retailers like Amazon.

If you are looking for ways to support the wildlife crossing you can make a donation to the Save LA Cougars campaign. If you live in LA be sure not to miss P-22 Day Festival and Urban Wildlife week October 16-22.

Cat Dance

Why go out dancing when you can stay home and watch this? Spanish Dance Troupe Ballet Zoom performs their version of ‘Cats’. Your dose of retro ridiculousness. Can’t figure out if the kittens are very happy though, maybe a little confused. Happy Caturday!

Fantastic Little Beasts

House panthers and tiny tigers, these are some of the names we give to our beloved house cats. The domestic cat has retained a close relation to their wild relatives and so much so that we often find ourselves drawn to breeds that exhibit the physical characteristics of the larger wildcats and, once such breed, the Maine Coon, comes as close as you can get to having a Lynx in your home

They are considered to be one of the oldest natural breeds in North America and are the official Maine ‘State Cat’. Their origins range from the mythical and ridiculous (domestic cats mating with raccoons) to the more plausible, they resulted from matings between long-haired type cats sent over by Marie Antoinette, or the Vikings. The Maine Coon is closest to, and resembles the Norwegian Forest Cat, which gives some credence to the idea that the Vikings may have been the ones to introduce the breed. Even if their origins are up for debate what we can agree on is that they are stunningly beautiful, fantastical little beasts.

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All Images – Robert Sijka of Felis Gallery

Photographer, and breeder, Robert Sijka has had a long time passion for Maine Coons and has combined that passion to capture the very essence of what makes these cats so appealing. Robert’s use of a black background, to photograph his two beautiful black cats named Dolce Vita and De La Loo, helped him create his signature style that showcases the breed in an elegant and almost otherworldly manner.

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Robert tells the Cat Behaviorist that the two black sisters, Dolce Vita and De La Loo are his personal favorites (he loves black cats) and are always up for a photo shoot.

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Robert also says that it took some experimentation to come up with his signature style, about several thousand photos worth, and playing with the cats before hand is key to capturing their wonderful expression.


For more of Robert’s photos be sure to check him out on Instagram and Facebook as Felis Gallery.

Heart of A Lion – A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America

On June 11, 2011 a mountain lion was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut, for most his death would go unnoticed, a cat that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, another causality of urbanization. For scientists his death would eventually reveal an incredible and ultimately tragic journey, while giving hope to the idea that mountain lions could one day reclaim their former territory in the Eastern U.S. where they have been considered officially extinct for decades. For wildlife journalist and author William Stolzenburg this young male mountain lion would become the extraordinary and unlikely hero of his book Heart of A Lion.

Heart of a Lion A Lone Cat's Walk Across America, William Stolzenburg, Mountain Lions, Pumas, Eastern Cougar, Book Review, Heart of a Lion, big cats of north america, American Lion, save pumas, Mountain Lions journey to find love,The mountain lion, who has been nicknamed Walker, was discovered to have journeyed almost 2,000 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills all the way to Connecticut, not that far from New York City. Through DNA analysis, physical evidence left behind, eyewitness accounts and camera traps, biologists were able to trace his origin back to the Black Hills. His journey, which is the longest documented of any mountain lion, would come to an end in a place where his species had not been seen in almost a century.

Heart of A Lion pieces together Walkers short but extraordinary life as he made his way across dangerous and challenging territory complete with urban sprawl, busy roads, and, people who would want him dead simply for existing. The reason for his journey can be found coded in his DNA, the deep biological need to seek out and establish his own territory and, to find a mate. This search would take him east across six U.S. states, and at one point north into Canada and my home province of Ontario. What he couldn’t have known is that he would never encounter a female. With no established mountain lion populations in the east and the fact that females do not undertake long distance journey’s, instead sticking close to their home range (there has been one documented exception), Walker’s search would sadly prove futile.

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“The first photographic evidence of a cougar in Wisconsin that would eventually travel all the way to Connecticut. This photo was taken by an automatic camera in a cornfield in Dunn county, Wis. on December 22, 2009.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

The saying To walk a mile in someone’s shoes, comes to mind when reading Heart of A Lion and I don’t think it makes a difference that in this case the someone happens to be a mountain lion, especially if his story helps readers identify with and feel empathy for him and the plight of his species.  Despite traversing his way through highly populated areas he would rarely come into contact with humans, revealing himself only to a lucky few, a testament to the elusive nature of his species. He did not bring harm to nor was he a threat to humans, and he was most definitely not the blood-thirsty killer that mountain lions are so often wrongly labeled as. Walker’s story sends us a message and it’s one that we have heard before – that co-existing with these cats is possible and in some places we are already doing that.

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“A cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota prowls forest land in Clark County, Wis., Automatic trail camera snapped this early-morning shot on January 18, 2010. In June 2011, the same cougar was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut, DNA tests showed. The cougar’s  journey from South Dakota to Connecticut blew previous cougar travel records out of the water.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

Heart of A Lion doesn’t rely on portraying these cats as the stereotypical ‘beast’ to tell an intriguing story. Instead, it shows us a side of these animals that rarely makes headlines, the side that research and science is discovering is the norm rather than the exception – mountain lions are shy cats who avoid humans when given the space and opportunity to do so.

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Walker’s journey came to an abrupt end on Wilbur Cross Parkway, Milford in June, 2011. (Courtesy Connecticut State Police)

In addition to the main story the book also explores the history of the mountain lion, including how they were treated as vermin, right up to present day and the pressures they face from current day hunting policies. The book is guaranteed to stir up emotions, which may be a good thing especially if gets people thinking and pushes us towards changing outdated attitudes towards North America’s lion. It’s OK to celebrate Walker’s journey and mourn his passing, I know I did.

Whether you already love mountain lions or you are just starting to learn about them, the book is an important read and a new way of looking at these amazing animals, one that I hope becomes a trend. Heart of a Lion can be purchased at various online retailers including Amazon and is part of my Recommended Reading List.

An interesting note is the story of a GPS collard female mountain lion named Sandy who was being studied by biologists in British Columbia. Sandy had made a never before documented journey for a female walking 450 miles from BC to Montana before her life was taken by a trophy hunter in December of 2015. Just how far she would have gone and where she would have ended up, will never be known.

What Cougars Do on Highways

What do cougars do when they reach the highway? Sometimes they cross it right away and other times they like to sit on it for a while. This video taken by a thermal camera on Highway 3 in British Columbia near Elko shows that occasionally the cats like to take in their surroundings before moving on. Knowing the potential hazard that exists when wildlife makes its way onto roads, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in British Columbia (TranBC) installed two Wildlife Detection Systems between Cranbrook and the Alberta border to help reduce collisions, human injury and animal fatalities.

The video, which is sped up, revealed that the cat actually sat in the middle of the road for over three minutes. The thermal cameras pick up on the heat signatures coming from the animals and work with radar sensors which then alert drivers to the presence of wildlife with flashing roadside signs. The flashing signs, which continue to flash for several minutes after detecting an animal, give the driver enough advance warning to slow down in time thus averting a potential tragedy. TranBC says it is not uncommon for drivers to see the flashing signs, but no wildlife which may be gone by the time the driver approaches.

The system has been in use for about three months now and is installed at two sites covering nine kilometers where large populations of wildlife are known to be. It was tested before being officially put into use for travelers and will continue to be monitored by TranBC to determine how effective it is at reducing vehicle collisions with wildlife. If proven successful they will consider installing more at other wildlife hot spots around the province.

It would be great to see this type of technology become standard practice, along with wildlife crossing or bridges, at wildlife hot spots all over North America and, especially in areas where cougars face a high mortality rate from vehicles. Hopefully transportation departments will consider these tools as the norm one day soon and include them as standard practice when planning for roads and highways.

Be The Creature

During my recent visit to LA I stopped by the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum again and this time I made sure to take in the Ice Age Encounters stage show where the audience is transported back to the prehistoric past to meet one of its most fierce and well-known predators – a life-size adult Saber-Toothed Cat.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) and The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, worked together with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to recreate and bring to life this long extinct animal. The result is an entertaining and educational live performance that is great for people of all ages and, I will admit to being as excited as some of the youngest members in the audience upon seeing the Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon Fatalis) puppet, or creature, for the first time.

The puppet is undoubtedly the star of the show so it could be very easy to overlook the fact that it takes a team of people to bring her (in case you were wondering the creature is a ‘she’ and her nickname is Cali) to life.

To find out more about what goes into the show what is it like to be the creature I interviewed puppeteer and member of the performing arts team Betsy Zajko, who literally walks in the paws of the cat. Betsy has been puppeteering the cat for just over six years and is part of a team of performers who work at both LA’s NHM and the La Brea Tar Pits.

Q How did you end up puppeteering Saber-Toothed Cat for the Ice Age Encounters show?

BZ I saw the job listing on-line where a lot of performers go to look for work and the job posting had a list of skill sets that fit everything I could do. They needed someone who could host, work with kids, operate heavy machinery without much visibility, and who doesn’t have a problem with claustrophobia. With a background in circus arts, theater, hosting, writing for NPR and CBS I had all the skills that matched to the job description, so I put together an audition.

Q What was the audition like for this role?

BZ At that time we were asked to write a short show under five minutes and they gave us less than a day to put it together and to demonstrate physical stamina. I did a presentation on centrifugal force, because at that time I was doing fire dancing in LA on the side, and I used this tool called poi to demonstrate centrifugal force and spinning cups of water around in the air without water falling out. It was a short presentation and then the physical skill set was mainly strength and flexibility. This is the first puppet I ever operated but with my training and background, which included trapeze, fire dancing and stilt walking, I thought I could handle her. I got the job and then learned how to puppeteer.

Q With limited visibility how did you learn to operate the creature?

BZ  The space we perform in is a small stage and like any performance space you learn blocking. We can vary the blocking but the basic points are set and once I learned my space, I could probably do the show with my eyes closed because I know so well how many steps it takes to get to certain places on stage… as long as the set pieces are in the same place. There is some visibility though, imagine crawling on all fours on the two front legs of the cat (which are my hands) I can see in between the paws on the floor and, about a foot more in front.

Q Did you study big cat movements in order to make the performance more realistic?

BZ Yes, we took several trips to the zoo to study big cats, took video, used YouTube as resource to watch animal movement and also practiced with people who specialize in creature performing. There is actually a person in town who taught the full suit creature performers in films at one time and also people on staff like Eli Presser our Technical Coordinator who is also a creature performer.

Q What was the greatest challenge learning to perform as the cat?

BZ The greatest challenge is when you are new to the creature, but after 6 years I am comfortable inside of her. Initially the hardest part was trying to figure out what that creature is capable of and what your body can sustain. The first time I climbed inside before she had skin we were trying to figure out what type of stilts would work on the arms because they were still working out how to design the arms. They had a couple of prototypes but we eventually ended up with ones that were most ergonomically easy to work with. We work together with the person (Remote Control Operator) who operates the animatronics in her face, I do the body and the second puppeteer operates her face, this is different from other creatures that we operate at the NHM where the person inside operates everything.

For me learning to operate the animatronics in her face was another challenge and since I had no experience in gaming or using remote controls, as many of my colleagues do, I had to learn that along the way.

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Remote Control Operator Jamie Lozano (Left) Quadruped (Saber-Toothed Cat) Performer Betsy Zajko (Right) with the Creature

Q Was the creature designed around your body?

BZ  They have to make a mold in order to create the creature and my body was used to make the mold. Although I am partial to her, as I also love cats, I can’t claim her as my own,  but I have seen a mold of my body at the Jim Henson Creature Shop! When the cat was being built getting the mold of my body took a long time, and the plaster heats up around your body so it gets really hot, but you couldn’t move or you would crack the plaster.

Q Why do you think they picked a Saber-Toothed Cat to represent Ice Age animals?

BZ She is the star of the Ice Age, the most ferocious creature and when you think of the Ice Age she is pretty iconic. Although kids refer to her as a Saber-Toothed Tiger there where in fact no actual Tigers back then, so one of our teaching points that we try to reiterate here at the Tar Pits is that she is a Saber-Toothed Cat.

Q Was it important to educate yourself about the science behind the subject?

BZ  It’s important when you are a performer at an institution like a natural history museum as you want to be able to answer the questions people have. So I got a list of what the basic questions might be like her scientific name Smilodon Fatalis, the fact that the saber teeth were eight inches long and how fossils are preserved, and made sure to study them. With the cats appearance, and since we have no idea if they were spotted or stripped, we do comparative anatomy with creatures that are similar phenotypes today and we make a best guess based on foliage of that time of what she may have looked like

Q Why do you think the Ice Age Encounters show is a good way to educate people on prehistoric animals?

BZ Whenever we do a show you can always tell there is an impact based on how the audience reacts with surprise when they see the cat for the first time and also when they hear scientific information that the host presents. I remember seeing a puppet show in elementary school as a child and can still recall that show, the puppet and the name of it. Art is a great way to teach and it lasts and, art forms that teach kids about science stick.

Quick facts about the puppet:

  • The person, puppeteer or Quadruped Performer, inside takes up about two-thirds of the cat. The final third, the neck and head, are the animatronics part which are operated by the Remote Control operator
  • Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the cat but mechanical repairs are now done by the museum’s Technical Coordinator Eli Presser and, the pelt is maintained by Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko
  • While it is called a ‘puppet’ it is a very technically sophisticated piece of engineering. The remote servos inside are military grade, the same type which operate drones
  • The man who designed the technical part of the puppet was recruited by the military, but he preferred making creatures
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Making friends with the star of show

A big thank you goes out to The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum for granting behind the scenes access at the Ice Age Encounters show; to puppeteer and Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko for taking time to talk to me; and, Supervisor Brian Meredith for helping to arrange the interview.

As mentioned there is a whole team of performers that work to bring the Ice Age Encounters show to life, upfront and behind the scenes which is worth noting. Each member of the performing arts team listed here play different roles at both the Tar Pits and at the NHM.

  • Ilana Gustafson – Manager
  • Brian Meredith – Supervisor (T.rex performer)
  • Eli Presser – Technical Coordinator (T.rex performer)
  • Jamie Lozano – Remote Control Operator (T.rex performer)
  • Quadruped Performers – Betsy Zajko, Jonathan C. K. Williams, Brittaney Wyszynski, Lisa McNeely, Baxley Andresen, Shannon Fitzpatrick,Tara Spadaro, Mark Whitten, Jaquita Ta’le; (T.rex Performers) Robert George, Brett Horn, Carlos Jackson, Andrew Eldredge