An account of our puma cubs born last year in 2019

On Saturday, in mid-September a year ago, I noticed a bundle of tiny cubs in the Puma birthing box when making my routine feeding visit. As I didn’t want to disturb them twice, I returned to the house and asked Cherry if she would like to see the expected newly born cubs. Obviously, she was delighted and together we returned to the enclosure. I closed off the nesting chamber and went in to check the babies. I picked up one. Three cubs hung from my hand all joined together. Shocked, I said, “They are all joined together.”
“We may have to put them down,” Cherry said. “They look like Siamese twins.”

Immediately we went into action. Cherry went back to the feed shed and cleaned the stainless steel food preparation area with bleach. We would use this as an operating table. Our neighbour and co-trustee Deni joined us. I had carried the cubs and placed them gently on the cleaned surface. Cherry, a retired special care baby nurse, took over, suggested that we should each try to hold one kitten and start disentangling legs and heads. This was made worse by the fact that there were great stands of hay and straw wound around them and slowly it became clear that6 there were indeed three kittens all connected by about a one inch tube to an umbilical cord of no more than a further four inches ling. Strings of grasses were tightly wound around the cords.

“How on earth did she give birth to this lot?” Cherry and I uttered almost as one.

We slowly disentangled grasses, lengths of straw and eventually we could see the three cubs with the actually cleaned cords.

Cherry set about tying each cord with thin string, close to each body and again as far away as possible about an inch away. With a pair of scissors, we cautiously cut through the middle in each case mopping up spilt blood.

The kittens seemed no worse and it was clear that even in the most unusual birth that each had fed and had tummies, as fat as butter my grandfather would have said. There was no excess bleeding. We cleaned the three youngsters, returned them to the birthing box, and let our female, the mother, back into the indoor house.

She walked in and laid next to the now separated cubs, happily licking them. We call her Demelza, as she is now ‘Cornish’ and she obviously trusted our intrusion. We noticed that one cub was clearly weaker than the other two and sadly died exactly one week later. The remaining two, both female grew fast and after just four weeks started to come out of the birthing box looking for Demelza. After about six weeks, they both strayed into the outer enclosure and learnt from their mother and father, Endeavour. Demelza had come from Amazona, a zoo in Norfolk and Endeavour from the more local Exmoor Zoo. Cherry named him after her schoolhouse name. They were devoted and it was a marriage made in heaven. This was the third family they had sired. Both were experienced and kindly to the cubs who would steal food from their very mouths.

The cubs grew. One was more confident, one slightly shy. Both grew fast and by the time I write this essay, slightly larger than their mother although slimmer and lighter than Endeavour who is large as pumas go.
Early in the year (2020), we had definitive plans for them to go abroad to a zoo of international repute. Then there was the problem of ‘Brexit’, which certainly made the move more difficult and then the lockdown cause by Covid 19 ended all possibilities of the potential move.

By chance, talking to a great friend, Ken Simms, who owned the zoo where Demelza was born, I mentioned the young pumas. A few days later, he contacted me saying a friend of his was forming a collection and if we could wait for the construction of housing for the pair, the animals would receive a very good home. We were thrilled. That was about three months ago.

Eventually we were due to have them collected on Wednesday, 26th August (2020), by a Mr Andrew Johnson and his wife. We had been sent photos of the intended enclosure, which was substantial and beautifully planned with outcrops of large stones made into a cave. For several weeks we had the collecting boxes, personally made and delivered by Ken Simms; we had placed them inside the indoor house hoping to familiarise the young pumas with them. Both lids were closed by sliding doors which we removed so that the ‘cubs’ could run through them when we left a treat inside them. Unfortunately, very quickly the cubs took to testing the boxes with their teeth and we removed them for vital repair. We replaced them with a large ‘wild boar’ traps, again opened at both ends to now familiarise them with these.

The afternoon of the 25th arrived and Rab, our ‘do everything’ man set the traps fully. We brought the mature pair in their indoor house having put food in and filled their water bucket. We then left the baited traps in the other indoor house and retired. Within thirty minutes Rab told me the more confident cub had taken the bait and been trapped.

Our job was now to connect the repaired travelling box to the trap with the box’s slide door down. Not an easy job when the growling and spitting we were only too aware what would happen if we failed in any part of the exercise as we were now double locked in the indoor house.

First, we roped the box and trap door to door and then with the aid of Rab’s pull – lift pulled them tight together so that they became one. As we tried to open the trap door the ‘spitting fury’ let out a blood-curdling growl and tried to bite hands, even through the trap bars. Adrenalin was bursting through stomachs. Eventually the trap door was opened. The puma sat looking at us and growled ominously as we removed rugs from the top of the trap in the hope that she would move to the darker box. She did not. She growled louder and spat heavier. The trap was also covered in large towels which had been dragged in and shredded! I gave her backside a gentle dig with a small stick and she turned unbelievably fast to face me. She then turned back to face Rab. At that moment I gave her another slightly more forceful prod, nothing more than schoolboys in the playing field. She exploded and leapt into the box. Rab dropped the sliding door. We smiled and shook hands. At that point, the excitement of the danger was tangible. The puma immediately calmed and we carried the box to the corridor.

We then set up the trap loaded with meat for the less confident young animal. By 9.30 that night she had not entered the trap. I checked again at 6 a.m., she was in the trap and was decidedly unhappy, growling and spitting, but in a class all of her own. I entered the indoor house and covered her with towels and left her to calm. As soon as Rab arrived, we carried out exactly the same procedure as before, but being more highly strung, this young animal was more vocal and initially the ammonia stench of her urine was almost breath taking and certainly ‘cleared’ our noses. She ranted and raved but went in the box, again explosively and the trap door went down. Again, Rab and I shook hands, a very tense job completed. I phoned Andy Johnson who had come down to Cornwall for a couple of days, but particularly to see the Lost Gardens of Heligan. I told him both pumas were boxed, screwed down hard and ready for collection. Andy and his wife were utterly charming and want us to go and see the puma’s new home.

That night they phoned and reiterated the invitation and said the cubs had gone straight into the rocky cave in the enclosure prepared for them and they had carried out a full inspection of their new home.

Personally, very satisfying.

Tony Blackler

- A collection of short stories -

Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.

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