Holtsville's free zoo is the big cats' meow

It was a typical afternoon in Holtsville: Morgan wanted to wrestle, but his adopted older brother just wanted to take a nap.

Age would trump youth on this particular day, as Simba - the elder of the two mountain lions at the Harold H. Malkmes Wildlife Education and Ecology Center - deposited Morgan on the ground with a swift paw to the muzzle. But Simba's days as top cat could be dwindling.

"It's like this in the morning, too - Morgan just wants Simba's attention," April Perry, a horticulturist at the preserve, said as she watched from outside the lions' cage. "But Morgan is on a path to be the dominant one."

Perry and the rest of the staff at the 100-animal wildlife center are concerned less about feline bragging rights and more about sharing their cats - and the felines' remarkable histories - with the public at Brookhaven Town's free zoo.

Mountain lions have been a fixture for more than 20 years at the Holtsville wildlife center, which sits on the site of a former landfill that the town transformed into an ecological park. The wildlife center displays animals, including goats, bears and a bald eagle, that are injured or cannot be released into the wild.

Morgan, who arrived in February and will be 14 months old on Christmas Day, is the latest in a long line of mountain lions to call the ecology site home since the facility opened in the 1970s.

First, in 1987, there was Kimo, who was rescued from a Mastic Beach owner who kept him locked in a cage meant for a dog, ecology center staff said. In 1991 came Sasha, who was rescued by an animal welfare agency from a Brooklyn apartment where she was kept illegally as a pet, staff said. Both cats eventually died of old age: Kimo in 2000 and Sasha last year.

In 2001 came Simba, who's now 8, another former illegal pet taken from a Queens veterinary office by the Nassau County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Simba, who was dropped off at the vet's by his owner, was malnourished, declawed and suffering from parasites but made a full recovery, ecology center staff said.

Morgan was born in a Puerto Rico zoo that had no room for another mountain lion, Perry said. The Holtsville center arranged for him to be shipped to the facility last winter to serve as a roommate for Simba, she said.

"We try to always keep the animals in pairs," not for breeding, she said, but for companionship.

Morgan and Simba, both males, appear to be growing into great friends. But such camaraderie has its limits.

Mountain lions make terrible house pets, said Frank Cruz, animal preserve caretaker at the wildlife center. And keeping a mountain lion in New York State is illegal and unwise, he said; they grow from cute cubs into aggressive predators.

Mountain lions, also called cougars or pumas, are considered extirpated, or locally extinct, in New York State. Each year the state Department of Environmental Conservation Web site says the agency receives a few calls about potential sightings, but most turn out to be cases of mistaken identity.

In the wild, mountain lions range from northwest Canada to southern Chile and hunt deer, elk and bighorn sheep.

At the ecology center, Simba and Morgan's enclosure is next to a memorial for Kimo and includes a viewing area for visitors. The enclosure, which Simba formerly shared with Sasha, is larger than the typical zoo cage, Cruz said.

The Holtsville lions deserve the extra space to roam, Perry said, especially because they've typically been mistreated as pets or poorly fed as cubs. Kimo arrived barely able to walk because of injuries to his front legs when he was young, she said.

"People buy them on the black market, and they get big and can't be taken care of anymore," Perry said.

And lions who have been pets have lost the skills needed to survive in the wild, Perry said. Morgan was never a pet, but he was raised in captivity and would not make it as a wild cat, she said.

Simba had barely survived captivity.

"He was sick, had parasites, was underweight, being fed the wrong food, malnutrition, bone fractures," said Kellei Burke, a laborer at the center.

Still, the animals retain some of their wild instincts. Perry said she has noticed Morgan quietly stalking her from the other side of the enclosure.

And Morgan, at just over a year old, is still growing and may reach a weight of more than 130 pounds. Simba has entered feline middle age, Cruz said. The pair became acclimated over several months.

"I could never put them together a whole day at first," he said. "Ten, 15 minutes at most."

Now they've been constant companions for about three months and have become one of the center's top attractions, Perry said.

"It's funny to watch them because they are just like watching a house cat," she said. "You forget how dangerous they can be."

Thankfully, the lions are kept well fed.

When you can visit

Located on Buckley Road in Holtsville at the Brookhaven Ecology Site, Park & Animal Preserve, the Harold H. Malkmes Wildlife Education and Ecology Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter and Thanksgiving. Call is 631-758-9664.

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