By Rennie Chamberlain The Nature of Wildworks is a nonprofit wildlife care and education center in Topanga dedicated to the lifelong quality care of its non-releasable wild animals. Under the direction of Mollie Hogan,Wildworks also conducts outreach programs about the wonders of wildlife and the importance of protecting the steadily dwindling habitat that wildlife, as well as humans, depend upon for healthy lives. This task is accomplished with the help of animal ambassadors. “Caring for wildlife is a wonderful privilege, as well as an awesome experience,” Hogan says. “At Wildworks care center, we strive to make the lives of the animals here as interesting and natural as possible.” They raise orphaned babies, watching them grow and develop, and help ease the aches and pains of those who are older. They also get their share of injured wildlife with broken wings and limbs, head trauma, even blindness. But in all her years of experience, Hogan never had an animal come into her care in such atrocious condition as a young cougar she calls Pirate. At eight months, a male mountain lion should weigh about 80 pounds. Malnourished when rescued from a breeding farm in Montana, Pirate weighed just 20 pounds. His spine and hipbones were protruding through rough fur, and the pads of all four feet were raw and bleeding from pacing the concrete floor of the small cage in which he had been forced to live. The tip of his tail was raw as if he had chewed it in frustration, and his right ear was notched, probably from a fight. The worst of his problems were his eyes. The right eye, ten times its normal size, was bulging from its socket and the left eye had been injured. When Pirate arrived at Wildworks, pain and blurred vision made him suspicious and frightened, causing him to lash out in self-defense when unsure of his surroundings. Hogan consulted with an animal ophthalmologist who diagnosed Pirate with severe glaucoma in his right eye, a condition normally found in older animals and causing pain much like a migraine headache. Pirate’s eye was removed that same day. When the young animal awoke from the anesthetic, he was immediately feeling better, purring and meowing like a normal kitten. Hogan kept a careful watch over Pirate, and after a week in her house with around-the-clock care, his paws began to heal, and he started gaining weight. He even became playful, attacking his toys as if they were prey. When Hogan took him back for a recheck, a detached retina and mild glaucoma were discovered in Pirate’s left eye. Hogan is able to treat the eye with drops to keep the pressure at bay, but unfortunately his vision will never be restored. Pirate is completely blind. “Because all cats rely so heavily on their vision, at first I was concerned about his quality of life,” Hogan says. “But after working with him and observing his behavior for two months now, I think he’ll be just fine. Not unlike a blind person, his other senses have taken over. I’m amazed at how well he gets along. He no longer paces and is calmer and more relaxed.” Pirate now lives outdoors in a large enclosure and has learned the boundaries of his cage, the location of food and water, toys and humans. His feet step lightly, and he points his nose upward when he walks to smell what’s ahead. “He calls to us and the other mountain lions when he hears our voices,” says Hogan. And the toy that seems to work best for him is a roll of paper towels that he can easily bat and grab again with his claws. More importantly, Pirate is proving himself to be one of Wildworks’ most impressive goodwill ambassadors. He is not stimulated by movement-what triggers mountain lions to attack-and thus is very safe to use in public. Although Pirate is bonding more closely with people, especially Hogan, his seeing-eye human, he still is all mountain lion, with all his wild instincts intact. Even though cougars exist in the wild in southern California, most people have never seen one. Here in the Santa Monica Mountains, a lack of wildlife corridors is severely limiting cougar populations. The National Park Service has been studying cougars in this area for several years and only three have been located and radio-collared. Wildworks’ captive mountain lions have been helpful to this tracking project as they are used to test scent preferences for lions in the wild. With grizzlies and wolves having disappeared long ago, cougars are the top predators in the local mountains. As such, it is extremely important that they survive here. Hogan sees Pirate’s ambassadorship as one way to inspire the public to help protect these magnificent animals. Despite his disabilities, Pirate works hard and purrs constantly, setting an example to both children and adults that disabilities don’t have to be limiting. Animals don’t laugh at each other and point fingers as we humans often do. Pirate, of course, can never live in the wild. And since mountain lion cubs stay with their mothers for two years in the wild, Pirate, now 11 months, still needs almost constant attention. Cougars can live up to 20 years in captivity, and even as an adult, Pirate will always require a little more attention than the other animals at Wildworks. However, Wildworks sees the relationship as a wonderful win-win situation. Pirate gets a safe, loving home filled with purpose and companionship, and the Nature of Wildworks gets a new way to open people’s eyes to wildlife causes. Tax-deductible donations to The Nature of Wildworks can be sent to: The Nature of Wildworks, P.O. Box 109, Topanga, CA 90290.
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