By MARY LANDERS
The Savannah Morning News
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Hide and seek has never been so exciting.
Kaylee Mailler, 10, is stalked by Shanti, a nearly 2-year-old cougar, at the renovated cougar habitat at the Oatland Island Wildlife Center in Savannah, Ga., on May 23. A new exhibit at the facility allows people to go nose to nose with the two captive cougars. Kaylee is the daughter of the center’s veterinarian Lesley Mailler.
It used to be that visitors to Oatland Island Wildlife Center could look high and low for the two captive cougars and still walk away disappointed. Both cats, geriatric half siblings, tended to hide out of sight.
Not now. Not only is there a new cat in town, but a new exhibit allows people to go nose to nose with the playful feline.
Kaylee Mailler can tell you. On a recent afternoon, the 10-year-old daughter of Oatland veterinarian Lesley Mailler stood by the cougar's glass. She might as well have been made of catnip.
Shanti, the nearly 2-year-old male cougar, crouched below a wooden deck following her every move. The girl turned her head away and before you could say "here, kitty kitty," the newest big cat in town crouched and sprang toward her.
Shanti, veterinarian Lesley Mailler notes, is a ham.
"He really likes people," she said.
The exhibit was made possible in part by an anonymous donation to Friends of Oatland Island, a $2,500 portion of which paid for the 11 door-sized panels of glass that bring visitors close enough to count the cats' whiskers. The cougars' windows are much like those of the popular Wolf Wilderness that opened in 2008, though cougars will be viewed sans the air conditioning that makes the wolf area a respite in summer.
At age 2, Shanti, which means peace in Hindi, has some filling out to do. He's 123 pounds but will get heavier and his head will broaden as he matures. He eats a special feline diet that keepers hide in a closed cardboard box he has to sniff out and open.
"He has to use those natural instincts," said Audra Taylor, animal care technician. "It requires him to tear it apart."
This day's treat was alpaca bones from a farm run by Mailler's friend and an egg provided by one of Oatland's own chickens.
Along with being people-oriented, Shanti loves water, romping in a baby pool and luxuriating in baths.
He joins Comanche, the 17-year-old "old man" of the exhibit, who seems to be adjusting to his youthful companion, at least in initial encounters through a fence. Another cougar, Taleka, was euthanized after her debilitating arthritis could no longer be managed with medicine.
Shanti was acquired from an animal trainer in Myrtle Beach who determined the cougar was a little too wild for show business. He spent a year in quarantine and has been cared for out of sight of the public as the new exhibit took shape.
"He has a very rambunctious type of personality," Mailler said. "He's gonna love it when we have visitors."