Trapped mountain lion cubs rescued just before Colorado dam releases torrent of water

Time was quickly running out for a pair of young mountain lion siblings trapped inside the dry spillway of a dam in southwest Colorado, photos and videos show.

An observant dam tender noticed the stranded yearling cubs just as he was about to release water from the Vallecito Reservoir down the spillway on Friday, April 19, Colorado Parks and Wildlife said on X, formerly known as Twitter. The dam is near Durango.

Photos show the cubs at the bottom of the empty spillway — with its high walls towering above them.

“A release of water likely would have drowned the two lions,” officials said. ”(Pine River Irrigation District) Superintendent Ken Beck and (dam tender Mike) Canterbury spotting them and holding off on the release gave them a second chance.”

The district opened the hydroelectric plant property and wildlife officials started the rescue.

District Wildlife Manager Ty Smith wanted to avoid darting the cubs if possible, officials said.

As it would happen, Smith had access to a rope that he used as a giant string to pique the cubs’ interest — the same way someone would if they were playing with a housecat.

“They say cats like string and well...we can say they seem to like ropes too,” officials said in an Instagram post about the rescue. “The high walls of the spillway meant the mountain lions wouldn’t be able to get out on their own and as our wildlife officer pondered solutions, he grabbed a rope and dangled it in front of the young mountain lions to see if they would grab onto it to lift them both out.”

One of them did. Video shows the mountain lion clinging to the rope “all the way to the top of the spillway barrier” and then darted off into the woods to escape.

But the remaining cub was less sure of the rescue method and wouldn’t hold onto the rope. Instead, it “ran down the spillway all the way to where the Los Pinos River continues below the dam,” officials said.

Photos show the cub’s mad dash up and down the spillway — and into a corner.

“Unwilling to swim to reach the bank, the young lion continued to pace around at the water’s edge and moved into a corner of the spillway,” officials said.

The video on Instagram shows the visibly frightened cub looking up at the rescuer and the rope and curling into a tighter ball in the corner.

“It settled in for a nervous bath while we pondered the next move to get the lion free,” officials said on X. “Hoping to avoid darting the animal, Smith climbed down the ladder into the spillway with the rope hoping to find a way to free the lion.”

They had a bit of a standoff until Smith was finally able to get the mountain lion interested in the rope. Other wildlife staffers were then able to move in with a catch pole and together lifted the lion up and over the concrete wall.

The mountain lion hid beneath a truck for a few minutes before taking off into the woods after its sibling, officials said.

Several commenters said they were impressed with the patience and creativity rescuers exhibited.

“They had to be terrified and you all did such a great job,” someone said.

“No one got hurt, rescue was safe and careful for all, thoughtful, humane, and best of all, truly effective,” another person said. “Thank you for the time, effort, creativity, patience, and for doing the right thing for everyone: big cats, people, and the community.”

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