Home may not be so sweet for caged cougar

by Amy Davis

Daily Cougar Staff

As the UH Alumni Organization continues to explore the possibility of restoring the university's "live mascot" tradition, concerned local researchers and animal care professionals emphasize regulations, requirements, and expenses involved in the housing and care of a live cougar.

Stan Mays, Houston zoo registrar for the past 15 years, said he doesn't see why, with proper housing, UH couldn't or shouldn't have a live cougar as a mascot.

"There is definitely an abundance of cougars, and locating one for a mascot would not be a problem at all," he said.

There are certainly more cougars than zoos can handle, Mays said. Many are crippled or have been raised domesticated, so releasing them into the wild is not an option, he added.

"The big thing is diet," said Joanie Steinhaul, a senior keeper at the Houston zoo. She said feeding a cougar properly can cost thousands of dollars.

Many people who have tried raising cougars as domesticated animals make the mistake of feeding them chicken, Steinhaul said. This is very hazardous to cougars and can cause rickets, she added.

She recalled a cougar the zoo took in from an individual who had raised the cat on a chicken diet. "The weak, frail bones of the cougar were damaged beyond repair. The cougar could barely walk," Steinhaul said.

In 1989, the cougar habitats at the Houston zoo were extensively modified to meet the new guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Animal Welfare Act, Mays said.

Charles Currer, USDA animal care inspector for East and South Texas, said the regulations he is required to enforce are minimal.

He said the regulation handbook states, "The enclosure must be large enough for the animal to stand up, sit down and make postural adjustments."

Currer said he would hope that anyone housing a cougar would do more than that.

Stating that the regulation is very broad, Currer suggested that the Shasta Committee get with other universities that house live mascots and also with the Houston zoo to help start a successful, more than just adequate environment.

The Animal Welfare Act, Mays said, is much more specific in providing what is called "behavioral enrichment."

Because cougars are predators, they can become extremely bored locked up in a cage with nothing to hunt and nothing to occupy their time, Mays said.

Lisa Meffert, assistant professor of biology, has studied population extinction on a National Science Foundation grant. She has seen extremes of cases like this, and she opposes the idea of a live mascot.

"If you've ever been to a bad zoo, signs of boredom are obvious," Meffert said.

She said pacing, rocking behaviors and sometimes even self-mutilation of understimulated cougars are called behavior abnormalities.

"Cougars are fascinating animals, but they're also very intelligent animals. The more intelligent an animal, the harder they are to cage and care for," Meffert said.

She compared the cougar to other more domesticated college mascots.

"For example, UT has a steer. But what does a steer do? They stand and eat grass. Cougars are carnivores and predators; they hunt," she said.

Out of all of Texas universities' mascots, the Baylor University bear is the closest in nature to the cougar. Baylor's bear trainer, Brandon Adley, said the Waco Chamber of Commerce has been successfully housing three bears on campus since the 1920s.

Adley said that adequately housing and caring for any nondomesticated animal takes a lot of money, but it can be done.

"The animal should come first," Adley said. "If UH is just doing it because they think it would be neat to have a live mascot, then they shouldn't."

Baylor graduate Russ Frank was a member of the Chamber of Commerce from 1991 to 1994 and helped care for the bears. After reading about ex-Cougar Guard member Diana DeForest's cougar attack, Frank was shocked.

He said in his three years in the chamber, he never heard of any incidents at all similar to the disorganization DeForest described.

Adley said Baylor has never faced any real problems with animal rights' activists, mostly because their program has been around such a long time and has run so smoothly.

"The first step is to create an environment that is clearly healthy for the animal, and to make it known that professionals will care for the cougar -- not just student handlers," he said.

Meffert said she does not agree. "It's a really magnificent creature, but in order to keep it on campus we would have to declaw and defang it. How much inspiration is that?"

Nick Brines, UH Alumni Association coordinator of programs, oversees the work of the Shasta Committee. He said he will not have any new information on the decision status of the committee until after its March 8 meeting.

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