The San Diego Zoo’s first mountain lions arrived in 1925, and we continued to exhibit this beautiful cat species through 1992. During this time, 37 cubs were born.
Our current mountain lion exhibit is home to two animals: a female, Koyama, or “Koya,” and a male, Yakima, or “Kima.” They came to the Zoo in 2006 and 2007, respectively, after they were found orphaned in the wild at an age where they were much too young to care for themselves. Now they give our guests a chance to experience mountain lions, which frequently roam the hills just east and north of San Diego.
Mountain lion exhibit
Exhibiting cats can be very challenging. By nature, cats must be elusive in order to be successful predators, and once they eat, they rest for long periods to conserve energy for the next hunt. Although our cats get their meals hand delivered regularly, they still abide by these natural instincts. Therefore, when designing an exhibit we work to have the mountain lions comfortable and acting natural while still being interesting and educating to our guests.
Our mountain lions have a rock arch to sun themselves on and survey their surroundings and an elevated ledge filled with substrate. Kima is especially fond of perching himself on top of the arch early in the day. Anchors to secure items such as femur bones or toys are installed. Plants provide some privacy and also enhance the appearance of the exhibit. It seems someone forgot to tell the mountain lions this, as Koya has enjoyed using the plantings as playthings! Fortunately, we predicted this behavior and have some extra plantings on standby in case his rough play causes the demise of any of the plants.
We also like to give items that the mountain lions can bat around and chase, simulating the act of hunting. Dried gourds are something the cats really enjoy play hunting with. The irregular shape of the gourds makes them roll unpredictably, and the dried seeds inside rattle, which also entices the cats.
Be sure to come by the mountain lion exhibit on your next visit to the Zoo. Our hope is that you will get an appreciation of this magnificent cat that lives in San Diego’s own backyard.
As more people have moved into the mountain lion's territory, the number of encounters with these cats has increased. This is often "big news" and frightens people. But overall, meeting a mountain lion is an unlikely event. The cats don’t want to confront humans, and they do their best to avoid us. You can avoid them, too, by not hiking alone, or at dusk and dawn when mountain lions are hunting. Make noise as you hike, and don’t leave food out around a cabin or campsite, especially at night. If you do happen across a mountain lion, never approach it—always give it a way to escape.
When Europeans first settled North America, mountain lions lived from coast to coast. But the cats soon came to be viewed as varmints—killers of livestock. By the 1940s, many states, including California, placed a bounty on mountain lions, paying $25 for a male pelt and $35 for a female pelt. Due in major part to the bounty system, the cats are now confined to the West, except for a small population in Florida. Some people continue to shoot them on sight, or trap or poison them.
It’s important to remember that mountain lions have an essential role to play in their ecosystems. They are one of the top predators, and without them populations of deer and other animals would become unhealthy and too large for the habitat. It’s true that mountain lions can be dangerous, and problem cats should be reported to local animal control agencies. But people like to live and play in or near wild places, so we need to understand and respect the wildlife that also lives there. If we take responsibility for our own actions, pets, livestock, and property, we can learn to live with mountain lions and appreciate their power and grace.