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Face to face with a North Carolina cougar
By Tom Adkinson

Aspen, an ever-curious cougar, eases forward to inspect a group of visiting humans. Image by Tom Adkinson.

ON GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN, NC – In the midday quiet of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the cougar’s purring was as loud as an idling motorcycle at a red light. The adult mountain lion was not 10 feet away, but we weren’t the slightest bit fearful as we took a behind-the-scenes wildlife tour at Grandfather Mountain.

The cougar, named Aspen, was in a half-acre wooded enclosure surrounded by a sturdy chain-link fence. It might not have bothered us even absent the fence, but we were certain we didn’t want to get that close to a wild feline that big on a hiking trail.

Aspen is a favorite on Grandfather Mountain, an appealing combination of nature preserve, tourist attraction and hiking destination near Boone, Blowing Rock and Banner Elk, NC. Those who know the massive mountain often refer to it only as “Grandfather.”

Chloe Brady offers one of Grandfather Mountain’s six bears a vegetarian treat. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Grandfather Mountain, the attraction, began its animal program in 1973 with Mildred, an American black bear that had been part of a repopulation program. Mildred became too accustomed to humans, so she came in from the cold. A star was born.

bear guides
Ruthie Sudderth and Chloe Brady are two of Grandfather Mountain’s animal habitat keepers who lead behind-the-scenes tours. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Mildred became a mascot for Grandfather Mountain and was the first of several species to be displayed to educate visitors unlikely to see some the region’s important creatures otherwise. She died in 1993, and the entire animal area now is named the Mildred the Bear Environmental Wildlife Habitats.

All of Grandfather Mountain’s animals were adopted after being born into captivity, injured or orphaned in the wild and could not survive if released.

bear statue
A statue of Mildred the Bear is one of Grandfather Mountain’s favorite family photo locations. Image by Tom Adkinson.

My family and I toured behind the scenes with Chloe Brady and Ruthie Sudderth, two of Grandfather Mountain’s animal habitat keepers. The 90-minute tours are $25 and are offered once a day on Saturdays and Sundays.

(A second way to get a personal look at Grandfather Mountain’s animal collection is its Keeper for a Day experience. That’s a three-hour program for ages 12 and older that involves interacting with the animals, preparing food and, yes, cleaning up after the animals.)

While the animals are visible to all guests, touring behind the scenes with informative employees provides a special level of understanding as you see the animals’ non-public residences and learn how the staff keeps them healthy and stimulated.

For instance, we learned that the four playful river otters are fed three times a day. In a mountain stream, they would be catching trout, crawfish and other critters, but Brady and Sudderth serve them smelt, sardines, ferret food and a mush of turkey, beef, bone meal and vitamins.

The back side of the enclosure where Aspen the cougar roams has one of the best views off of Grandfather Mountain, and it provides extra opportunities to see two cougar cubs that are a year old. Aspen, by the way, is an athlete. He can leap 18 feet vertically and zoom 30 feet horizontally if so inclined.

grandfather mountain
Daniel Boone saw this profile of Grandfather Mountain in the 1700s. Your getting to this perspective is easier than his. Image by Tom Adkinson.

There are four bear habitats, each covering about two acres, that are home to six bears. Gerry, at 28, is the senior resident, and at the other end of the age range are two 16-year-olds, Smokey and Flower.

America’s national bird, the bald eagle, is prominently on display. There are two in permanent residence because they cannot survive in the wild. Ajax came from Florida with a broken leg and a broken wing, and Griffin came from Nebraska with a head injury and one bad eye. They look regal in their leafy compound that covers one-third of an acre.

Elk are among the biggest animals that once roamed these mountains, and they will return to Grandfather Mountain this fall when a habitat covering three-quarters of an acre is complete. Be prepared for a different kind of bugling when the elk speak up.

A life-size statue of Mildred the bear is at the entrance of the Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum, which includes exhibits about the mountain’s geology, flora, weather, wildlife and explorers. Among the explorers was Daniel Boone, who visited when bears, cougars and elk roamed free on Grandfather’s steep slopes.

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Published September 29, 2017

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