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From Our Jungle toYours

Mercury and Tara Cougars


It's been two decades since we first fell in love with cougars. Last week we buried Tara, and today we buried Mercury, her mate, and our first love.  These two cougars changed our lives forever and the time has come for them to leave us and travel to the other world. Their bodies had long ceased to be fluid and graceful, and many times it was painful to watch how old and decrepit they had become.

Tara turned nineteen last October.  She suffered from arthritis and for the last two years she was unable to jump up to access the platforms and tower in their enclosure. She had lost most of her hearing.  And for the past few years both she and Mercury spent most of their days sleeping and sunning. She slept so soundly I would have to stare at her each day to determine if she was still alive.

Bart and I discussed having them put to sleep more then once. Their best years were clearly behind them. Cougars are proud. They would never reach such a state in the wild, such powerful creatures were never meant to be so humbled. These two were a couple of one-hundred-year-olds, and we were running a nursing home for the ancient. I felt pain caring for them. Perhaps it was the fear that I too would one day end up as they, old and frail and stiff.

But I know it is a fantasy to think that there is a gentle, easy way to put such incredibly powerful animals to death, even a mercy death. They fight it, and it is not pretty. Each time we discussed this, we came to the same conclusion, we couldn't save them from whatever was going to take them, for now, we could only hope they would pass in their sleep.

They both shared a large enclosure and attached to that was a quarter acre fenced-in hillside, with trees and flowers and a beautiful view of the woods below them. For the past few years however, they rarely availed themselves of this space, preferring to spend the days sleeping in various places in their main enclosure.

Two weeks ago on a particularly warm day for March, Tara and Mercury ventured down to the bottom of the hillside and spent the afternoon sunning. That evening Tara did not return at dinnertime and the next day I looked down to check on Tara and I thought she was dead. I walked the bottom of the hill and realized she was just once again sleeping very soundly. However, when she awoke I saw that her balance was off and she was too weak to climb the hill. Her breathing was exaggerated and I felt she was going to die that day.

Bart and I spent that afternoon by her side and she was so sweet to us, purring and happy for our attention. We weren't sure what she had, whether it was terminal pathology, or something that could be cured with medicine. And even if it could be fixed, should we put her through sedation and testing and invasive treatments so that she could recover only to pass away from something else? I offered her a piece of chicken and a bowl of water and she masticated the leg quarter. Slowly, over about a 45-minute period she consumed the meat. And she drank the water.

As we cried and discussed our options - doctor her up, leave her alone, call a vet to put her to sleep; her mood changed and she became grumpy at us. She decided for us. And so I brought down a blanket hoping she would lay under it, and we said our goodbyes and left her that evening expecting her to pass away in the cold of the night.

The next morning I approached to see her alive with her head up. I brought her more water and chicken necks and she stood and slowly began to walk towards me to drink and eat. I lead her up the hill and she followed me back to the enclosure and lay down with Mercury. That evening I offered her more food and she slowly consumed a very small portion, and did so the next day as well. But then she lost all interest in food and I knew this was the end. 

We had made the decision not to put her through the stress of sedation and testing and sub-Q fluids and shots of antibiotics, we would let her pass away naturally with Mercury by her side. But after a few days of fasting our feelings changed. It was time to call a vet and release her from her suffering.  God was taking her to another place, and this was an appropriate time to be merciful. I don't know if she would have died that night, or in a week, but her body was old and her lungs were failing. It was time for her to die.

She didn't protest when I injected a sedative, and for that I am so grateful. Then she went peacefully at the hands of our veterinarian. Later on, I opened the slide gate for Mercury to visit her and he did. Sniffing all over her body, he knew she was no longer alive. The next day Bart dug a deep grave and we burred her at the bottom of her hillside, in a sunny clearing.


Wednesday afternoon I planted bulbs in the earth covering her body and walked over to spend time beside Mercury. He was angry with me, and he stuck his paw through the fence to grab at me. I sat beside him for a long time, feeling sad that he was now alone, and wondered if he would live six months or six years without Tara. And I resolved that I would try to introduce his grand daughter Sheila to him for company.

I left for a four-day trip to St. Louis early Thursday morning.  On Friday, Mercury screamed to announce dinnertime as he had done so many times before. Bart answered, telling him he was coming soon. He continued to cut up meat for our 45 cats and began distributing the food to each cat. And when he approached Mercury's cage he knew instantly that Mercury was dead. He died just one week after Tara. He never missed a meal and there was no indication that he was ill. It was as if he died of a broken heart.

Since I was out of town, Bart placed him in our freezer so that we could bury him together. I returned to the bittersweet news of Mercury's passing. It beaks my heart to think I will never again see those two. I walked down that evening to see the hole Bart had dug for Mercury. There were Mercury's footprints on top of Tara's grave and one of the bulbs I had planted was busting though the footprint. 

Before we laid Mercury to rest, I had to have answers. Why did he leave us? Was it his heart? My examination revealed Mercury died of an aneurysm of his mesenteric artery and he quickly bled to death. There was nothing we could have done.

Mercury was born February 10th, 1985 at Pat Hoctor's exotic animal farm and we raised him from 11 days. He was 20 years and 5 weeks old when he died. Our relationship went through many phases in those two decades. As a cub he was our first child, and the sole recipient of all our love and attention. As a young adult we gave him Tara and together they shared a deep love for each other and us.

I have memories of Mercury sleeping in our bed with us and of leash walking both Mercury and Tara to our creek to swim in the water with them. I remember their romantic courting behaviors and their discovery of sexual pleasure. And I will never forget of the birth of their first-born sons, Cinnabar, Arjan and Sharu, and the pride we felt for Mercury having sired such wonderful boys.

About a decade later Mercury let it be known that we were not welcome in his enclosure anymore. Perhaps he was jealous of all the other cats we had collected. Or maybe it was just written that time would change the nature of the relationship. He loved us, I have no doubt, but now his space was for him and Tara only. We accepted his wishes and continued to love and care for him for the next 8 years until he departed.








Feline Conservation Center 

Bart & Lynn Culver

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