BAKER CITY — The mistake was unavoidable, but Todd Callaway didn’t stop to worry about his reputation as a hunter whose integrity is beyond reproach.
He just wanted to save the three cougar kittens.
And he did.
Callaway, 64, is both a hunter and a retired wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Baker City office.
When he realized that the cougar he shot and killed on Thursday was a lactating female, he immediately started following the animal’s tracks in the snow, hoping to find its den and, possibly, kittens.
He found the den.
He said his flashlight beam showed three tiny kittens, each weighing about two pounds.
Callaway, who was hunting in the Lookout Mountain unit east of Baker City, called his former employer, ODFW.
The three kittens were taken to Baker City, where first a local veterinarian, and then Justin Primus, ODFW’s assistant district wildlife biologist, cared for them.
“(Primus) fed them every four hours,” said Brian Ratliff, the district wildlife biologist.
Ratliff estimates the kittens — two females and one male — are about two weeks old. Although their eyes were open, they were still covered with a film and the kittens were in effect blind, he said.
The kittens almost certainly would not have survived a single day without their mother, Ratliff said.
Cougars can have litters at any time of the year. Bearing young during winter can actually be advantageous for the cats, Ratliff said, because their main food source — deer — tend to be concentrated during winter, making it easier for the mother to find her own meals while nursing her kittens.
On Friday, Primus drove the three kittens to The Dalles, where he met another ODFW employee who transported the trio to the Oregon Zoo.
The kittens’ final home, though, will be the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., said Michelle Schireman, who has worked at the Oregon Zoo for 18 years and who also serves as the species coordinator for cougars for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Schireman said she works closely with ODFW veterinarian Colin Gillin in cases when animals are orphaned.
Gillin called her on Thursday after learning that the kittens had been rescued in Baker City.
Schireman, through her work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said she’s also in touch with zoos across the country and knows which facilities are looking for particular species.
In the case of the North Carolina Zoo, it had two male cougars in its exhibit — both about 18 years old.
One of the cougars died recently, and the other is in poor health, Schireman said.
“I had been in touch with the zoo, and they were willing to take as many as three cubs,” Schireman said.
“Whenever possible, I try to keep siblings together.”
She said the three kittens are in good health, and she expects they will be flown to North Carolina within a month or so.
“We’ve been feeding them every four hours, and when I came in for the early morning feeding (Monday), they looked really good,” Schireman said.
Callaway was not allowed to keep the adult cougar because state law prohibits hunters from killing a female cougar that is accompanied by kittens that still have spots.
An Oregon State Police officer warned Callaway but did not issue a citation.
Ratliff said that’s not surprising, because Callaway’s mistake was not only inadvertent, but also basically impossible to avoid.
The reason, Ratliff said, is that because the kittens are so young they had never left the den, which means there were no small cat tracks in the snow to alert hunters to the presence of kittens.
As for the adult female, it’s impossible at a distance to distinguish between a male and a female cougar, much less to determine that a female is lactating, Ratliff said.
Callaway said the cougar was running when he shot it.
After shooting the adult cougar, Callaway “did everything perfectly,” Ratliff said. “He did more than a lot of hunters would have done.”
Schireman said that during her 18-year tenure at the Oregon Zoo, she has helped place 105 orphaned cougar cubs, including the three from Baker County.
A majority of those animals were rescued in a state other than Oregon, she said.