Colorado Springs, Colo. – Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is mourning the loss of Kaya, a 13-year-old mountain lion who lived a long life at CMZoo after being orphaned in the wild in Wyoming in 2006. This summer, she again captured the hearts of guests when she earned the nickname ‘Grandma Kaya’ by embracing the presence of three young kittens who were also orphaned in the wild and came to live at CMZoo.
Kaya’s passing comes in the midst of a difficult week, medically, for several beloved animals at the Zoo. In the past several days, urgent or emergency procedures have been conducted not only on Kaya, but also on Roxie, our oldest Western lowland gorilla at age 43, and on Zwena, one of our two oldest African lion sisters at age 12. The team is cautiously optimistic about both Roxie and Zwena, although further complications are possible for both animals.
Kaya, who would have turned 14 in November, passed away overnight in her den. After a sudden change in her energy level late last week, Kaya then refused to eat or take medications, even her favorite treats: goat’s milk and fish. On Saturday morning, veterinary staff performed an emergency examination to try to pinpoint the issue and treat it.
During the examination, Kaya didn’t show any specific issues, so she was treated for potential dehydration and given medication to make her more comfortable. Following the treatment at the CMZoo vet clinic, Kaya appeared to have recovered well without any complications and returned to her den to rest. Sunday morning, keepers found that despite the team’s best efforts, Kaya had passed overnight.
Kaya was blind and had ongoing age-related arthritis. A recent blood draw showed signs of early kidney disease, which isn’t unusual for a cat of her age. She is believed to have passed of natural causes and general age-related issues.
Mountain lions are usually solitary in the wild, but Kaya and her brothers lived together for their entire lives. Kaya was the last remaining sibling. Yuma died in July 2016, Motega passed in February 2019, and CMZoo lost Tocho in April 2019. After Tocho’s passing, keepers and guests had questions about whether Kaya would do well in the mountainous three-yard mountain lion habitat without her brothers and the company they’d always provided.
Just one month later, CMZoo received a call from the mountain lion Species Survival Program (SSP). Three six-week-old mountain lion kittens had been found orphaned in Washington State and needed a home right away. Although for bittersweet reasons, CMZoo had room to take them.
“At that point, our focus was on providing a home for these kittens and on creating an environment where Kaya had the option to enjoy having mountain lion company again,” said Rebecca Zwicker, Rocky Mountain Wild animal care manager who worked with Kaya and her siblings for over ten years. “It was also an opportunity for these kittens to have an adult female mountain lion around, to be there with them in those tender first months when they were moving into this strange new world. Kaya really showed them the ropes of the exhibit.”
Zwicker recalls talking with her fellow Rocky Mountain Wild keepers about how the kittens — females Adira and Sequoia, and male Sitka — were learning from Kaya. They learned to explore the exhibit, where to find the best sunny nap spots, and how to approach Kaya.
“Their introduction went smoothly, but it wasn’t like they raced into each other’s paws,” said Zwicker. “The whole time we were planning their introductions we kept in mind that Kaya is blind, older, much bigger and a bit slower. Thirteen-year-old Kaya had to set some ground rules with these rambunctious kittens.”
After vocal warnings and a few light physical corrections from Kaya, the kittens learned it wasn’t in their best interest to surprise their blind cohabitant. Keepers noticed the kittens would approach her more slowly and with plenty of ‘chirps’ to let Kaya know they were coming. Once Kaya seemed to accept their presence, though, she would lie nearby while the kittens wrestled each other, and sometimes even got in on the fun.
Kaya was often seen navigating the rocky habitat, closely trailed by the kittens, and cuddling with them in the same sunny spot where she used to cuddle with her brothers. One day, keepers noticed Kaya had some wet, matted fur patches on her sides, legs and shoulders. They weren’t sure what was causing it, but then realized the kittens had been grooming Kaya. Grooming is often considered a sign that animals are comfortable around each other, and in some species is seen as a bonding activity.
“When Kaya accepted those kittens, those of us who had been working on the introductions knew it was just magic,” said Zwicker. “Kaya’s story is so powerful because it’s full-circle. We’ve seen her step into this world with her brothers as a young, unsure, orphaned kitten. We’ve seen her develop relationships with her keepers and grow up into a rock star trainee. We’ve seen her tenacity through the hardship of losing her eyesight. We’ve seen her lose her brothers one-by-one and witnessed her perseverance to continue training and stay engaged during the weeks she was alone in the habitat. To see her become ‘Grandma Kaya’ in her final months was like she’d completed the cycle. Those kittens were comfortable with her, and Kaya was an important piece of their world. She’s passed the torch, in a way. I just wish they – and we – could have had her a little longer.”
Keepers will closely monitor Sequoia, Adira and Sitka, who have returned to their normal behaviors. Keepers gave the kittens access to Kaya after she passed, so they had the opportunity to find closure.
“Sitka went into Kaya’s den and slowly approached her, sniffed her, gave her a chuff (a cat greeting), then chirped and lied down next to her,” said Zwicker. “After a few minutes, he went back outside to find his sisters, who were climbing up a branch against the glass viewing area, being their normal crazy selves. Things will be different for them without Kaya, but they have us and each other, so they’ll be okay.”
Having the young kittens inspires keepers to continue serving Kaya’s species and her legacy through this next generation of CMZoo mountain lions.
It’s the end of an era for Rocky Mountain Wild. As CMZoo says goodbye to the last of the first orphaned siblings, it’s heartwarming to know that the next generation of kittens had the chance to benefit from Kaya’s presence, and that they provided Kaya with cuddles, playtime and company during her final months.
About Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Society was founded in 1926. Today, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, America’s mountain Zoo, offers comprehensive education programs, exciting conservation efforts and truly fantastic animal experiences. In 2019, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was voted #6 Best Zoo in North America and CMZoo’s Rocky Mountain Wild was named #5 Best Zoo Exhibit in North America by USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. It is Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s goal to help guests fall in love with animals and nature, and take action to protect them. Of the 233 zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of just ten operating without tax support. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo depends on admissions, membership dues, special event attendance and donations for funding.