The last mountain lion in Maine was shot in 1938 near the Quebec border, or at least that’s the consensus. But throughout the years, Mainers have called in multiple sightings of the large wildcats, unmistakable because of their long, sweeping tail.
“They’re kind of the bigfoot of Maine,” said Curt Johnson, superintendent of Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, where a new, state-of-the-art cougar (mountain lion) exhibit opened on Friday, May 4, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The exhibit — a spacious wood-and-wire enclosure with a sheltered, glass corridor for viewing along one side — is the park’s most expensive exhibit yet, costing more than $100,000, not including hundreds of hours of volunteer work. At the beginning of May, the park’s two cougars moved into their new home, which at 3,500 square feet is the largest exhibit of its kind in New England.
“That’s new for us,” Johnson said. “Before, they were viewed through a double layer — two chain-linked fences. Now, it’s just like there’s nothing between you and the animals. It’s a huge improvement, and the habitat is far superior and much larger.”
Friends of the Maine Wildlife Park, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, raised about two-thirds of the expenses for the two-year project.
“Their mission has been to get every single animal that currently lives at the park into a spacious, natural habitat,” said Lisa Kane, Maine Wildlife Park educator. “They have fundraised for the birds, the bears, the raptors, the coyotes, the fox.”
The park paid for the remainder with revenue generated from park admission, Johnson said. Tax dollars were not used.
Naturally, the cougar and the park’s other wildcats will be the stars of this year’s kickoff event, “Maine Big Cats Day,” scheduled for 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, May 5. The event will feature special displays and activities about Maine wildcats.
The new mountain lion exhibit and enclosure benefited from more than the mountain lions. The park’s family of four bobcats — a mother and her children –- moved into the old mountain lion enclosure, and while the two Canada lynx don’t get a new home, they are next on the list for an expanded habitat, Kane said.
“Big cat species are very elusive,” Johnson said. “You could go your whole life in Maine and maybe not see a bobcat or a lynx. So when people come here the response is, ‘Aren’t they beautiful? Isn’t it nice to see the differences between the species, to be able to see them up close?’”
On Friday, a group of third graders from Vivian E. Hussey School in Berwick attended the grand opening and quietly watched the ribbon cutting — conducted by president of the Friends of the Maine Wildlife Park Ray Clark and Maine Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock. Now and then, a child would wipe the fog from the glass to get a better look at the female mountain lion lounging in her shadowy cave.
After the ceremony, the class was about to move to the next exhibit when the rain slowed to a drizzle, and the female cougar emerged from the cave, squatted on the grass and urinated, to the children’s delight. She then padded around the enclosure, climbing over rocks and fallen trees.
“There’s lots of vertical space for them to hop up and down and move around and show what they really look like in the wild,” Kane said. “Both cats will walk right up to the glass.”
“It’s really a cross between the happiness of animals and the happiness of people,” Clark said. “And that’s really the purpose. It’s supposed to bring animals and people together.”
Both of the park’s cougars are slow-moving because they’ve already lived past their natural lifespan, about 8 years in the wild. The female is 12-14 years old, while the male is 19. They’re both average size for their species, which have a weight range of 80-200 pounds.
The male is informally called Bob because he was born with half a tail. But in general, the staff doesn’t name the animals in the park.
“They’re wild animals and we don’t want to domesticate them. They’re not pets,” Kane said. “It’s almost easy to buy a lion or tiger online. It’s illegal for people to have those animals in Maine as pets, but we’re quite sure there are dozens if not hundreds of people who keep these animals illegally as pets. In fact, sometimes when people see wildcats in the wild, they may be released pets that became too big to handle.”
The park is home to more than 30 native Maine animal species, and all of the captive animals are “nonreleasable,” meaning they cannot survive in the wild because of a defect, an injury or, most commonly, a dependence on humans. Many of the animals are zoo surplus animals or rescued from homes where they were illegally owned as pets.
“We call them ambassadors for their species,” Johnson explained. “They represent their species in the wild. We’re a wildlife education facility. We don’t say, ‘This is Joe, isn’t he cute and cuddly? Wouldn’t he make a nice pet?’ No. We say, ‘This is a raccoon. This is their diet and habitat.’ I think it gives people a much wider perspective on wildlife.”
According to the female cougar’s records, she was raised as an illegal pet and was confiscated and taken to The Acadia Zoo in Trenton. But she didn’t get along with the other cats, said Kane. Park staff thought she might tolerate old Bob, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, Bob didn’t like her. Twice a day, the staff must lure the cougars with food, swapping them between the outdoor and indoor enclosure to keep them separate.
“When these animals pass, we’ll certainly seek to find some surplus zoo animals, younger lions we can pair up — not as a mated couple, but maybe two females,” Kane said.
The exhibit is dedicated to Connie Kippax, a former wildlife park volunteer whose favorite animal was the cougar and who spent thousands of hours leading tours and teaching about the park’s wildlife.
Close to 150 volunteers contribute about 40 percent of the labor at the park, said Johnson. Several of these volunteers, along with park staff, prisoners from the Windham Correctional Center and MDIFW engineering all contributed time and labor to the new exhibit.
For Big Cat Day on Saturday, special feeding times have been scheduled for visitors to view the cats eating. At noon, the bobcats will have lunch; at 1 p.m., the Canada lynx; and at 2 p.m., the mountain lion.
“With the bobcats in particular, during feeding time, people get a little concerned because they go crazy — screaming and yelling and beating each other up and running around. They go nuts and get all excited,” Kane said. “But it’s them saying, ‘It’s supper time, yay!’”
If the crowd’s lucky, Kane might bring the cats some of her homegrown catnip, their favorite treat.
The Maine Wildlife Park, located on Route 26 in Gray, is open to the public April 15-Nov. 11. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., but visitors can stay in the park until 6 p.m. Admission varies from free to $6 per person. Individual and family season passes are also available. For information, call 657-4977 or visit maine.gov/ifw/education/wildlifepark/.