The Sanders’ reaction when wildlife officers called to say they had a mountain lion moving in?
“Oh boy,” Cec Sanders recalls from her Wetmore home, where she lives with her husband, Tom, and more than a dozen creatures transitioning back to the woods.
With their numbers changing every month, bears, bobcats, badgers, foxes, mule deer and pronghorn are the nonpermanent residents in the backyard, staying in chain-link enclosures that comprise the nonprofit Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
For 30-plus years, Cec and Tom Sanders have been trusted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to house and feed animals found injured or seized for troubling human beings — and to prepare them for a second chance in their true habitat. Theirs is one of two volunteer facilities in the state accepting mountain lions, though it’s been two decades since they last sheltered one.
Last month, along came the little lion whose unfortunate story was heard all around Colorado. A local had picked up the baby on the side of a road in La Veta, caging it and feeding it sickening bratwurst.
To the Sanders, it came blue-eyed and spotted, characteristics of a cub younger than 6 months. Then, on Dec. 22, came a similarly-aged roommate.
“That’s what we got for Christmas,” Cec says. “Another one.”
The scrawny juvenile was caught stalking a pet cat in La Junta, alone like the first.
It’s possible the mothers were hit and killed by a car, says Frank McGee, the region’s wildlife manager. It’s also possible they were killed by one of their own, he says, or they might have abandoned their young after unsuccessful hunting.
Whatever the circumstance, a cub without a mother “runs a risk of starving to death,” McGee says. “That’s not an end anyone wants to see.”
Enter the Sanders, who every morning and evening step into the cat cages, leaving about a pound of meat for each while never turning their backs on the little beasts, snarling in the shadows of their hollowed logs or plastic igloos. (Their genders remain unknown, “and I’m not about to turn them upside down to look,” Cec says.)
Game managers have provided roadkill deer remains, while the caretakers have also collected hunters’ leftover elk meat, bought chicken and ordered rats and mice from Pueblo’s raptor center. The goal is to see the lions grow to a size capable of taking down a deer.
And while the Sanders have built a reputation by fattening bears for successful lives in the wild, the predators’ futures out of rehab are more uncertain.
“One of the things a mom does is teach them how to hunt,” McGee says. “Something pretty hard for us people to do for them.”
Near Del Norte, the Frisco Creek Wildlife Hospital and Rehabilitation Center was a third facility in the state tending to mountain lions. That ended this year.
“We’ve not had very good luck rehabbing lions there,” McGee says. “They ended up getting in trouble almost immediately afterwards.”
Most common is a lion learning it’s easier to feast upon livestock or pets, inciting angry calls to wildlife officers. Grown cats are euthanized while the dwindling number of rehab units are seen as last chances for offspring left behind.
“If the alternative is that we kill it or try to raise it so it can be a successful lion, it doesn’t hurt to try,” McGee says.
So the Sanders will try. And while they do, they’ll worry about the species, as they worry for all of their visitors, including the 15 bears they’ve met this year. That’s more than usual.
“Through our entire run of rehab, we’ve seen just a constant escalation in the conflicts with people,” Tom says, blaming an expanding wildland-urban interface.
“I don’t think it’s gonna get any better,” Cec adds.
If it means more lions in the coming years, they say they’ll try to accommodate. As for the current two, their release back to the wild could be several months from now.
“That’s the best part,” Cec says. “Seeing them go.”
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