Watch: Orphaned mountain lion returns to wild after care in San Diego

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SAN DIEGO — A mountain lion that spent four months under the care of specialists in San Diego County was released back into the wild this week, the first in a new state program aimed at getting the big cats back to their natural habitat even after human intervention.

Video from the release shows the mountain lion take one look back at its caretakers, then bound forward through the rocks and brush. Cameras set up along the trail show the creature leaping on until it disappears from view.

The then-6-month-old cub was first brought to San Diego Humane Society after its mother was hit by a car near the Tijeras Creek Golf Course in Orange County in February. The cub and its sister were orphaned by the crash and state wildlife officials determined “the cubs could not fend for themselves,” the Humane Society explained in a news release.

The organization agreed to care for the animals, and the first cub was transferred to the Humane Society’s Ramona Wildlife Center in February. It was recently joined by its sister after the other cub received surgery for a forearm fracture suffered during the crash that killed their mother; that mountain lion remains in rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, Monday was the big day for wildlife center staff, who had determined the animal was strong and developed enough to re-enter its original habitat in an Orange County wilderness area. The team in Ramona is the first in California to work with state officials on a new program that reintroduces mountain lions to the wild even after they’ve come under human care, rather than spending the rest of their lives in exotic animal sanctuaries after leaving their habitat.

“We are very excited to have been a part of this pilot program for mountain lion rehab in California, as typically rescued mountain lion kittens are routed for sanctuaries,” said Christine Barton, the center’s director of operations and wildlife rehabilitation. “We hope these few months with us have provided her the extra time needed to fill the void left from losing her mother.”

Staff says they acted carefully to keep the animals from becoming too dependent on their human helpers during their stay.

“While at the Ramona Wildlife Center, the mountain lions have been housed in large mammal compounds, limiting human interaction to only necessary veterinary exams and medical care in order to prevent imprinting,” the news release explains.

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