There’s a new chapter being written for two SoCal mountain lions that were found almost three years ago under a car in Burbank. Remember them?
The two cubs (about three months old) were found under a parked car in early December 2011; residents were poking broomsticks to shoo them away before animal control rescued them. The young cats – horribly malnourished and full of parasites – were first taken to the California Wildlife Center in Calabasas for medical evaluation before being transported to Zoo to You, a sanctuary in Paso Robles.
Known as a teaching and educational facility, Zoo to You trained the two young cubs to be traveling animal ambassadors since the cats were not good candidates to be released back into the wild. (They weren’t properly trained to hunt and had been overexposed to human contact. It’s unknown what happened to mama.)
For almost two years, trainers worked with the lions dubbed Olive and Leno but, according to Zoo to You trainer Katelyn Cottle, “it became clear that they wouldn’t be the best fit as traveling ambassadors. It’s heartbreaking to put so much time and effort into these beautiful creatures but sometimes to have to let the animals speak to you on what they need. And we listened to that.”
That’s when the folks at Animazonia stepped into the picture.
A sanctuary in Riverside, Animazonia Wildlife Foundation has been welcoming big cats to its grounds since 1986; it’s been a non-profit entity since 2000 and is operated entirely by volunteers, many who live in the Los Angeles area with fulltime careers. Three people do live at the sanctuary property.
Since its inception, the 5-acre bucolic facility has been home to lionesses, mountain lions, a black leopard and a tiger. These animals were either confiscated from roadside zoos or kept as pets in private homes. The Foundation started when volunteers, upset by an ad in the Recycler for an “Idaho cougar, 6 weeks, male. $600,” decided to rescue that mountain lion and thus began the search for an appropriate sanctuary.
Overall, many of the big cats that find a home at Animazonia have been sick, neglected, abused or abandoned.
But not so with Olive and Leno. At this point in their lives, their needs were clean cut: a place they could enjoy an outdoor life and simply be for the rest of their lives.
“We had just lost our black panther Magic, she lived with us for 23 years,” said Anne Absey, board member and volunteer. When Absey and fellow board members heard about Olive and Leno’s situation earlier this year, they jumped at the chance to house them.
A communication specialist in Glendale, Absey walks around the sanctuary, an oasis of shade and green in the Riverside chaparral and desert. Big enclosures are scattered about the grounds, surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees, California pepper trees and a stand of cottonwoods, planted by volunteers.
Adding to the peaceful surroundings is a nearby pond – filled with catfish and koi – that sparkles in the sunshine. The sanctuary is not generally open to the public, but small groups can arrange to tour the facilities. Currently, Olive and Leno are the only big cats housed at Animazonia; there is room for more.
Absey walks over to Leno’s enclosure; the big cat seems relaxed but keeps a close eye on the new humans. “Oh this is good, he is on the ground,” says Serena Burnett who volunteers as animal caretaker, nutritionist and board member. She’s also a business owner and paralegal. “Usually, Leno’s been up high on his perch looking down. He seems very comfortable at this level.” Soon, however, Leno does jump back up to survey the situation.
Across the way, Olive looks ready for a nap but the unknown guests pique her interest.
Burnett explains that at first Olive and Leno weren’t eating very much which caused concern. These cats in the wild normally eat at night, when they are more active, so feeding schedules were altered. But just how active are they in the dark of night?
With the help of SoCal camera trapper and Cougarmagic blogger Johanna Turner, volunteers placed motion controlled cameras in each cage to record how the cats behave once the sun went down.
The results were, (dare we say it?) night and day.
Absey and Burnett share footage: Leno batting about toys (one is a bowling ball stuffed with catnip), stalking lizards and bounding up and over his perch. Olive, likewise, is on the prowl, alert and active; she has a toy made of old firehouses fashioned into a ball. The nighttime footage helped everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief. Here, Leno is playing with a log toy and does an acrobatic back flip off his perch.
It’s not just Turner’s cameras; Absey and Burnett then rattle off numerous donors who have supported the sanctuary with monetary gifts, manpower, physical items and technological know-how. The list is endless. “Everyone wants a deeper connection with nature,” explains Abney. “We enable them to feel that connection with their donation, their gift, their time.”
Animazonia’s upcoming fundraiser is in South Pasadena on Sept. 13, 2014 will fund needed improvements like a new outdoor restroom, cage roof top covering and landscaping as well as general expenses. It costs about $75,000 to feed these cats over the course of their lives at the sanctuary.
No doubt, the big discussions at the fundraiser will be about how the Burbank lions are handling this new chapter in their lives but also on the fate of urban mountain lions in Southern California.
“We are glad that Olive and Leno have a place to live out their lives in peace,” says Absey as she watches both cats soak up the afternoon sun. “Our overall vision is a world where big cats have safe environments in the wild and in captivity. Of course, we’d like to never see a big cat in captivity, but that’s not the reality of the world we live in,” she says. “It’s a big dream, and we’re sticking with it.”
— Story by Brenda Rees, photos by Martha Benedict