Wildlife

Three Great Reasons to Fly Cross-Country

A weeks-old mountain lion cub prepares for a cross-country odyssey. image courtesy of LightHawk
A weeks-old mountain lion cub prepares for a cross-country odyssey. image courtesy of LightHawk

When three young cougars were suddenly orphaned, two pilots from opposite coasts helped distance the kittens from their tragedy.

The Monday began with rain as it often does near Portland, Oregon. As LightHawk volunteer pilot Mike Baum reviewed the latest weather reports and radar, the furry cargo he volunteered to fly halfway across the country left Oregon Zoo in a large dog kennel.

Baum removed all but three seats from his TBM 700 turboprop airplane to shave pounds and ounces from the overall weight he would carry and enhance his fuel efficiency. To minimize stress on the orphaned cougar cubs, it was important to try to make the flight on one tank of avgas. As rain clouds gave way to thunderstorms in the distance, Baum punched through the grey clouds bound for Denver, Colorado with the tiny cougar siblings on board.

Sunrise above the clouds. image: Sarah Kitzmann/LightHawk
Sunrise above the clouds. image: Sarah Kitzmann/LightHawk

Six weeks earlier, the trio were orphaned when a hunter killed their mother. While cougar hunting is legal in Oregon, shooting a lactating female is not as it endangers her cubs. Because the mother had given birth only two weeks earlier, her offspring had not ventured outside the den. There were no small footprints to alert the hunter of the cubs’ presence.

When the hunter realized his mistake, he followed the mother’s tracks back to her den and recovered the small cubs. As a former wildlife biologist, the hunter knew the youngsters could not learn the skills necessary to survive in the wild on their own. The trio would have quickly perished.

Oregon Zoo keeper Michelle Schireman helped the cubs grow from “two-week-old wobbly, weak, bottle sucking cubs,” she recalls, “to the energy filled, purring, carnivores that left us eight weeks later.” After weeks of round-the-clock care, the zoo found a new home for all three cubs at the North Carolina Zoo.

While a commercial flight was possible, it would mean each cub would be crated separately and fly in the cold, harsh cargo hold of a large jet. LightHawk volunteer pilots stepped forward and provided their aircraft to help the young mountain lions. Spared the trauma of traveling apart, the cubs wrestled in their shared kennel showing no signs of stress.

LightHawk arranged the multi-stage wildlife survival flights while juggling a complicated set of logistics. Baum, based in California would fly up to Oregon and load the cubs at dawn. Meanwhile, Jim Houser a North Carolina pilot would depart the east coast bound for Denver to meet Baum and the cubs before turning around and heading back home.

The cougar flights crew. LightHawk volunteer pilots were, second from left, Michael Baum (Palo Alto, CA) and on right, Jim Houser (Charlotte, NC) image: Sarah Kitzmann/LightHawk

So why did Baum, founder of the Aviators Model Code of Conduct, sign up to donate this flight through LightHawk? He says that in addition to its environmental merits, it presented an interesting opportunity to improve his piloting skills. “It keeps you sharp and makes you a better pilot,” he remarks.

It’s more intangible for Houser. He cites a conservation ethic born from outdoor hobbies and nurtured by volunteering with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “Although doing these flights is a great conversation starter, I think when you do well, so you need to have a mentality of service,” he says. “At the LightHawk annual fly-in, I looked around the room and thought, ‘This is the crowd I want to be associated with.’ It’s a culture of service.”

“They are just extraordinary creatures,” Baum says. “To see them for just a couple of minutes, you just melt. The way they moved around, the noises they made and how they interacted with world was really different than anything else I had ever experienced before.”

North Carolina Zoo says the cubs are doing well and getting ready for their new roles as wildlife ambassadors and educators.

See how the cubs are adjusting to life on the East Coast in this adorable short clip.

Experience the westbound leg of the wildlife survival flight in this fun flight day video.

After spending a year and four days in the extreme cold and white of Antarctica, I came back to the world a changed person. My passion is to share stories of people doing extraordinary things and I've done that since 2008 as the chief storyteller for LightHawk. LightHawk is a unique non-profit that grants flights to conservation groups through a network of volunteer pilots. Nearly everyday LightHawk donates educational, scientific and photography flights covering the U.S., Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada. LightHawk volunteer pilots, aircraft and resources help to tip the balance toward sustainability for every major environmental issue within our targeted areas of focus. My favorite part of flying at 1,000 feet in a small aircraft is seeing how that perspective changes how people see their communities and empowers them to take positive action on behalf of conservation. Taking off is pretty cool too.

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