Itchy and scratchy?

March came in like a … cougar, or puma if you prefer. I marked the first day of the month with two reptile demos — blue-tongued skink and hognose snake, a great combo that made it a red-letter day in zoo volunteering. And for the last half-hour of my zoo day, I had a nice long coffee-sipping conversation with Rae Nan Harmon, scheduling queen of the Thursday volunteers and “day captain” extraordinaire. I told her the funny thing I saw in the Minnesota Trail cougar exhibit, and she put it into context for me.

The cougar, or puma if you prefer, was striding around the exhibit scratching himself on every stick, branch and tree trunk in sight. When I told Rae Nan, a longtime cat owner, she explained to me that he was marking his territory with the scent glands in his cheeks.

I knew from my Big Binder of Zoo Facts that cougars mark their territory but do little to defend it. But I always assumed “marking” meant “peeing” — which it can, but not exclusively. Whatever his deeper instinct, this mountain lion just looked itchy to me, though, as if plagued by the dry skin that haunts so many of us this time of year. Especially in the photo below: Does he really have scent glands in his shoulders?

Even the largest cat species in North America (an average male cougar weighs around 200 pounds) has a surprising amount in common with the 15-pound felines that share our homes. The charming website A House Full of Cats has a great deal to say about scratching and marking. I can’t live with housecats myself, though; I’m far too allergic. They make me …  itchy.

Cougar on the move

It’s a noisy construction season at the zoo, which is building a new indoor amphitheater (the current one is expected to hold penguins a year from now). The cougar exhibit lies well within earshot, and our brother-sister pumas are reacting differently. She’s lounging on the rock shelf atop the exhibit, where both of them usually hang out. He’s pacing the perimeter, obviously more vigilant than usual.

The zoo acquired these cougars (or mountain lions or pumas, if you prefer) from the DNR as orphans whose mother, believed to be an ill-advised “pet” puma, was shot by the owner of a threatened dog. They represent the largest species of cat in the U.S. — up to 225 pounds for males, 130 for females. Their paws, as disproportionately big as a puppy’s (note the female’s big feet in her close-up), help wild cougars bring down deer and other large animals. While endangered like all big cats, they reside near the top of their food chain, outranked only by wolves. A young boy watching these two, alongside his parents and me, seemed fully aware of this fact. When his dad theorized that the pacing male was “looking for some vittles,” the son replied, “I think WE’RE the vittles, Daddy!”