A beloved resident of Grandfather Mountain has died.
Aspen, a Western cougar who lived at the Linville, North Carolina, nature park since he was a cub, was euthanized Monday, according to a news release from the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
The 15-year-old cougar was unresponsive after undergoing tooth-removal surgery last weekend, the foundation said in the news release. During a 24-hour observation period his condition got worse and his keepers made the decision to “humanely euthanize” Aspen, according to the release.
“Aspen was such a great ambassador of his species and for Grandfather Mountain,” foundation President and Executive Director Jesse Pope said in the news release. “Everyone that met him was in awe of his gentle nature and his interest in meeting those who visited with him.”
At 15, the foundation said Aspen surpassed the average lifespan of a Western cougar living in the wild by two years.
Aspen was known as much for his “striking blue eyes,” as he was for interacting with habitat staff and visitors, according to the news release. He was a communicative cougar, ranging from “gentle purring,” to “colorful vocalizations,” the foundation said in the release.
He was born at Rocky Mountain Wildlife Park in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in June 2003, and was only 3 months old when Aspen took a twin-engine airplane to Grandfather Mountain, which had just lost an elderly cougar, the news release said.
“Upon first sight, Aspen immediately began stealing the hearts of everyone he came in contact with, which he continued to do every day for the rest of his life,” Grandfather Mountain’s chief habitats curator Christie Tipton said in the news release.
Because he was so small when he arrived in North Carolina, Aspen couldn’t live with the adult cougars at the nature park and had a special holding area built specifically for him, the foundation said in the news release. He even spent time in the office.
“We definitely didn’t have problems with mice during that time,” Tipton said of the ‘big office cat’. “Our actual resident office cats were not particularly thrilled with that arrangement.”
The foundation said in the release that during that era “Aspen spent his cub-hood days playing with toys, pouncing on keepers, chasing the cats, nursing on blankets and fleeces and licking his keepers’ heads.”
Soon he was big enough and moved to the cougar habitat, where he quickly bonded with the other residents — Sheaba and Nikita — whom he played, groomed and snuggled with over acres of land, according to the release.
“No matter where he was in the habitat, as soon as he saw his keeper friends at the overlook or on the other side of the fence, he would light up and start calling to them immediately,” Tipton said in the news release. “He loved purring and ‘talking’ to his keepers every morning, and he loved meeting (most) new people, making new friends and playing chase games with the smallest of them. He won the countless hearts of every person who has met him over the years.”
Aspen is survived by fellow Western cougars Logan and Trinity, siblings that were rescued in 2016 by Grandfather Mountain after they were found orphaned as cubs in Idaho, according to the release.