From the Field

The Mountain Lion in the Window

November 30, 2017

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The subject of the message was: OMG! Mountain Lion Kitten in Window Well!!!!

After checking to make sure it wasn’t some very clever phishing attempt, I clicked the link open and there it was. Seven seconds of, yes, indeed, a mountain lion kitten in a window well.

Of course, I had questions. So many questions.

Where is this? When is this? Whose window is this? How did the kitten get in the window well? How did it get out? And then the one I should have asked first, wait, where, exactly, is mother mountain lion?

Happily, Conservancy staffers Charles and Jolynn Messerly, who posted the video to an internal TNC message board, had the whole story. Well, they had the story up to a point, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Where + When

Where: The Conservancy’s Matador Ranch in the grasslands of north central Montana

When: The Sunday after Thanksgiving

Whose Window: Charles and Jolynn Messerly’s, ranch managers who live on the Matador Ranch with their three daughters

As Jolynn and Charles graciously told the story when I pretty much called out of the blue to pepper them with questions (see above), they first became aware of the mountain lion kitten when their dogs started barking.

“We think the mother mountain lion has a deer kill near the creek that’s fairly close to our house,” said Charles. “She and her kittens – they usually have two with them – were probably crossing nearby and somehow this kit and the mother got separated.”

Mountain lion kitten in the woodpile (taken from a distance) © Jolynn Messerly/TNC

Jolynn brought the dogs in and then she and Charles kept an eye on the kitten from the house, hoping the mother lion would come back. The kitten took up a position on the woodpile nearby and, well, seemed to be perfectly relaxed there for most of the afternoon.

When the mother mountain lion failed to reappear, they called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks who sent a biologist to the ranch.

From the Woodpile to the Window Well

“It was when the state biologist tried to catch him [the kit] that he got from the wood pile to the window well,” says Jolynn. “He was a fighter and did not want to be caught.” Because it was too late to take the kitten down to the creek closer to the suspected deer kill, the biologist kept the kit overnight and returned in the morning to release him.

“We took him down to the creek,” says Charles and released him there.

It’s been four days and they haven’t seen any more sign of him, or the mother lion. Of course, says Charles, that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

“I really just feel like there’s got to be a deer kill [nearby],” he explains, and he’s been looking for it for the past few days. “I’d hoped I could find the mother and the kitten together. There’s quite a few mountain lions around now – getting more all the time. Our deer population on the ranch has gotten a lot better and that’s bringing the cats. The biologists were confident the mother mountain lion and kitten would find each other again.”

The Privilege and Responsibility of Living with the Wild

Living on Matador Ranch the Messerly family is used to seeing and living close to some of the northern Great Plains’ most iconic animals – black-footed ferrets, mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn, sage grouse, and, yes, mountain lions.

All those animals – and the grassland habitats they depend on – are kind of the point of Matador Ranch, after all. Their presence means the conservation practices at Matador and the surrounding ranches (read about that work here) are working. Mountain lions at Matador are a good thing because it means the big predators are returning to some of their historic ranges in the plains.

Still, even for the Messerly family, a three-month-old(ish), fifteen-pound(ish) mountain lion kitten pawing at the window of their daughter’s bedroom is a little more up close and personal than they’re used to.

“Yeah,” says Charles. “That was a first. He startled our daughter when he dropped down into the well, and then she wanted to open the window.”

Well, of course, she did. Just looking at the video, I want to open the window. But girls raised on a working ranch and nature preserve in the Montana grasslands know better than to open the window to a mountain lion, no matter how cute his paws and ears are. It’s something I think a lot of us forget.

Me as much as anyone because I keep thinking “kitten” and forgetting “mountain lion.”

Girls raised on a working ranch & nature preserve in Montana know better than to open the window to a mountain lion, no matter how cute his paws and ears are.

@ccbyington

But as Charles pointed out, “He may look cute and cuddly, but he’s still a lion, still a wild animal.”

I grew up in Florida where alligators and venomous snakes are part of the everyday outdoor experience and you learn to be vigilant without being afraid. I don’t want to live in a world without mountain lions, or grizzly bears, white sharks, water moccasins or alligators, for that matter. So if this is what it takes to share the world with the wild – vigilance, a knowledge of its ways, and, finally, a willingness to leave the window closed, and let animals (even the cute and cuddly ones) be what they are without regard to my sensibilities – then I can live with it.

I can live with the mystery of what happened to the mountain lion in the window.

Mountain Lion, not the one in the window © Paul Berquist
Cara Byington

Cara Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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19 comments

  1. As neighbors of the Messerly family I can attest to the spurt of lion numbers in our area in the past few years. So far the dogs keep them at bay… most of the time.

  2. Please be sure to cover those window wells (think bunnies & others getting caught too!). Not sure why you all don’t already know that seeing you are nature conservanists…!

    1. Thanks Judy for that comment – it is a reminder to me to get a new cover for my window well- the one I had cracked- an easy solution plus it keeps water and debris out as well. They are easy to pick up at Home Depot or Lowe’s.

  3. I live in the Verde Valley in Arizona. A few months ago an even younger mountain lion cub was spotted in our community eating cat food off of peoples porches for weeks. No one ever saw the mom. Our local wildlife park, Out of Africa, eventually rescued it and it seems to be happy and healthy there. He is very social and playful.

  4. Oh how lucky you are. I love wildlife and would love to see it up close. I hope the kit found her mom and they are safe and sound.

  5. Very good coverage of how we need to protect the wild animals on our planet! Thank you Nature Conservancy!

  6. It is a genuine pleasure and privilege to be able to live compatibly with and see wild life. We used to live in a semi-rural mountain community and frequently visited by cougars, raccoons, deer, coyotes and black bear families. The only problem arose was when our neighbors purposely left cat food out for the raccoons, they attacked our dogs, invasion into our home and destructiveness to various parts of the property. If you see wild life, PLEASE: do not feed them, just enjoy being able to see them.

  7. Really great story. Just thinking about the chance to see a mountain lion up close is amazing.

  8. A really great article. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom!

  9. Wow- that is an amazing story! And glad to hear that the kitten was rescued- hope it was able to be reunited with its mom. On a much smaller scale , I live in a residential neighborhood in Connecticut. A few years ago a baby skunk appeared in my window well- must have gotten away from its Mom and fell in . I kept hearing this scratching noise and followed it to that spot- we tried to help it get out by itself by putting rags down in the well and then remembered that I had picked up a tiny painted ladder as a decorative jewelry holder that was just the right height . The baby skunk eventually figured it out and climbed the ladder to safety. We never saw it happen and it was nowhere to be found so we hope it too found it’s Mom. It is si important to respect all wildlife, even the ones we consider pesky like skunks who will spray in defense if they are threatened. They are just doing what nature has provided them with to survive and it would be nice if all people would respect that. I never thought that my tag sale find would be such a lifesaver , and would be put to much better use than holding a few pieces of jewelry!

    1. Hi Jan — definitely yes on the window well coverings. We have them on all of our basement windows — and your story reminded me of something similar that happened to us when we lived in Boston (in the Brighton neighborhood, which is very urban). We discovered we had a family of skunks living under the front porch of our small house on Cambridge Street. One night — of course it was raining and dark and very late — a scratching from the window well woke me up. I looked out to see a small baby skunk staring back. Well, I thought, that’s going to be a tricky rescue operation. In the end, my husband went out in the rain with an ironing board and carefully slid it down into the well, and the skunk almost immediately started to climb it. Victory! But no, the surface was too slippery and the skunk would get about a third of the way to the top and then slide back down. Traction! We needed traction. So my husband went back out with an old beach towel and draped it over the ironing board. Second time was the charm. We made sure all of our basement window wells were securely anchored after that. And the ironing board? Well, my husband said, it’s not like either of us ever irons anyway. So we just kept it by the back door in case we needed it for future baby skunk rescue missions. When I get mad at him (my husband, not the skunk), I always remind myself that there probably aren’t that many men who would go out in the cold spring rain, in the middle of a Boston night to rescue a baby skunk with an ironing board and a beach towel.