Saying goodbye to Mac the Mountain Lion

Mac the Mountain Lion died Saturday night, October 13th.

He was wearing spots when I first met him. One of two foundling cubs, Mac was the lucky one. The sibling he was cuddled against had already died. He barely weighed 5 pounds.

At the Applegate Park Zoo, the little orphan was bottle fed by Donna, the head zookeeper. We all fell in love with him. Mac created a stir when he came to the clinic for his health exams. He had a trilling call that was most like the whistle of a firework headed skyward, before the explosion. It was lovely and wild and totally magical. It was fascinating to watch him grow.

His last “kitten” vaccinations required advance strategic planning. Donna withheld his milk, bringing him in close to feeding time. I quickly jabbed him with the needle while she simultaneously dropped the bottle into his mouth — success! Although only 36 pounds on that day, his “playful” paws were already tools to be respected. In fact, in only a few short weeks he shed his spots and took up the very important cat sports of swiping, stalking, and stealth.

Donna was Mac’s first love, his “Mama”. If he heard Donna’s voice he would come running, rubbing against the fence so she could scratch behind his ears, sending out a gruff “meow” in answer to her calling his name. All day long he would “sing” to her. The noise he made as a young kitten was long gone, replaced by his loving meow or an unearthly scream.

A mountain lion is a truly magnificent animal. He is the fourth largest cat in the world. Their territory ranged across all the Americas. Deer are their preferred dinner.

A solitary and shy individual, the mountain lion is not drawn to humans and rarely seen. One of the reasons that Yosemite National Park strongly urges people not to feed deer is to prevent their unnatural accumulation which in turn attracts their natural predator — the mountain lion. If a mountain lion is lured by the prospect of an easy meal to an area heavily inhabited by people it may be seen as a threat. For the lion, it risks death as a “nuisance,” the only reason a mountain lion may be hunted or killed by man in California since 1990. The Miwok Indians, Native American people of California, described the mountain lion as the ideal hunter, strong and brave, chief among the animals (quotation from the Mountain Lion Foundation; Montijo,Y).

In late October 2016, Mac ate part of a fireman’s hose that had been given to him as a toy “scratch pad” for enrichment purposes. The little darling (Mac weighed about 140 pounds) shredded the 40 pound hose and ate it instead, forcing an abdominal surgery, a gastrotomy, to remove the obstructing foreign object from his stomach. His recovery was rapid and he continued to thrive. But Mac always had a sneaky habit of eating things he shouldn’t.

When the first call came in late Saturday morning that Mac had thrown up I wasn’t too concerned. Always on top of things, the zookeeper who called me was keeping me informed. I said I would come by later and look him over (“look” in this sense is all that I could do — without an anesthetic I couldn’t examine Mac in any physical way.

Within a few short hours it became obvious that Mac was seriously ill. Under sedation, the picture looked grave. Running a fever of 105.6, Mac was septic and shocky. Another intestinal problem. We took him to surgery. Terrible news: something had perforated Mac’s intestine. This hole through the intestinal wall allowed leakage of bowel material into his entire abdomen, creating an overwhelming infection called peritonitis.

The normally clear fluid inside the abdomen was a murky brown color, spreading infection everywhere. The prognosis was poor. But we had to try. This was Mac.

I performed an intestinal resection, removing the section of intestine that had the hole in it. We lavaged his abdomen with liter after liter of sterile warmed saline to flush out all the infection. After several hours of surgery, we prepared to recover Mac and return him to the zoo. But it was too much for him — the septic shock overtook him and he simply stopped breathing. At 12 years of age, Mac was gone. Mac’s majestic presence will be missed at our zoo.

In “Cougar: The American Lion” by Kevin Hansen, he reports that in the mythic world, the mountain lion was the protector of the cosmos. The Zui of New Mexico said that the ancient ones wanted the world to be guarded by those keen of sight and scent, and the mountain lion was the sentinel of the North. I like to think of Mac up there, protecting our cosmos, immeasurably extended over time and space, the Milky Way and far off galaxies.

Christine McFadden holds a license to practice veterinary medicine and surgery. She has cared for the family pets of Merced at Valley Animal Hospital for more than 30 years. Send questions or comments to

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