Nestled on a hill off Newport Way in Issaquah is an animal-enthusiast’s paradise that many Seattle-area families have yet to discover. Founded in 1972, the Cougar Mountain Zoo offers an intimate experience that puts you up close and personal with an array of memorable animals, from listening to the ear-shattering call of a lemur to feeling the soft brush of real tiger fur against your skin.
The zoo’s primary focus is on endangered species and education, spotlighting ten different "Worlds," or areas of specialization, with one or more ‘Ambassador’ species/subspecies in residence at the zoo.
“We’re animal ambassadors. We hope to inspire people to go and protect,” says Cari McKinstry, the zoo’s public relations guru and Jill-of-all-trades. The zoo's dedication to a mission of conservation through education shines brightly through employees’ willingness to answer questions and enthusiasm for making each visitor feel welcome. Although places like Woodland Park Zoo, Northwest Trek and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium may pop up first in your mind when you think about zoos in the Seattle area, Cougar Mountain Zoo offers up an excellent alternative that is less overwhelming for many kids. And with its Reindeer Festival now in full swing and Santa holding court through Dec. 23, it's an ideal time to visit.
Start with the wild cats
The zoo entrance leads you directly to the cougars. From there, you can choose to start with the cats and reindeers that reside to the south, or begin your journey north, where you’ll wind your way through the Magic Forest. Docents are located throughout the zoo, making it easy to ask questions and find out more about the animals.
The zoo has a total of 10 worlds: Cougars, tigers, wolves, reindeer, macaws, cranes, wallaby, camelids (featuring alpacas), lemur and ratites (emu). The total number of animals at the zoo evolves every year.
Don't-miss exhibits include the cougars and tigers — mysterious and entertaining. Start with the three cougars (think giant housecats), who are full of independence and intriguing behaviors. They might not communicate with the typical meow, but they definitely chuff and purr.
Cougars are known by many names, including mountain lion, puma, screamer, catamount, panther and American lion. The cougars were acquired from a zoo in Wisconsin in 2011. There are two females and one male: Miksa, age 4, Keira, age 4 and Tika, age 4. The cougars came to the zoo at 3 lbs., and now Miksa weighs 168 lbs. and the girls average between 120-125 lbs.
The four male Bengal tigers include Bagheera, age 6, Vitéz , age 6, Taj, age 8 and Álmos, age 8. Taj is a rare golden Bengal who came from the same preserve as Álmos, a Royal White. Álmos is nicknamed Chuffers, since chuffing (a friendly noise) is his favorite sound to make.
Each day the zoo provides a number of activities to learn about the wild cats. You can watch cat feeding, lecture and enrichment. The tigers are at 1 p.m., and the cougars are on at 2:30 p.m.
The supporting cast of characters
Despite its humble size, Cougar Mountain Zoo has plenty of other animals on display to keep you engaged. It is currently expanding, building world-class habitats for the recently acquired lemurs and wolves (visitors will be able to catch glimpses of the wolves starting in January). Other animals to explore include reindeer, wallabies, emus, alpacas, macaws and the fascinating and funny East and West African crowned cranes. Each exhibit has its own mini lecture and daily activity, some of which are interactive, with opportunities to feed (the animals love apples).
Cougar Mountain Zoo also offers in-depth programs such as Close Encounters, designed to make the zoo into a living classroom. With a donation, you can spend time with zookeepers and the animal of your choice. Enter the tiger tunnel and watch them play with only a glass wall between you and the spectacular (and very large) cats. Feed the emus, the surprisingly enchanting, relatively brainless and hilarious big birds of Australia. Close encounters are available for the lemurs, reindeer, mule deer, cranes and cougars as well. (Close Encounters range in price, from a 15-minute tiger encounter that starts at $56 for a group of six, to a more in-depth experience starting at $64 per person).
You can also gather a group for a series of lectures, personalized to fit a curriculum theme; and there are opportunities for birthdays and other group activities. Kids wanting to learn more can explore the Animal Tracks Library or visit the Wildlife Museum.
Holiday cheer…and reindeer babies
During the month of December, the Reindeer Festival transforms the Cougar Mountain Zoo into a holiday wonderland, starring Santa and his (zoo resident) reindeer. Among this year’s sleigh team are adorable reindeer babies Rudolph and Dasher. Kids can hear stories read by elves every hour, write letters to Santa at the post office or feed the reindeer. They can also visit with Santa at his permanent house away from the North Pole, get faces painted, drink hot cocoa and more.
If you go ...
When: The Cougar Mountain Zoo Reindeer Festival runs December 1-23, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Regular zoo hours are Wednesday–Sunday., 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: 19525 S.E. 54th Street, Issaquah
Fee: $10 (kids ages 2–12), $14 (adults). Kids ages 2 and under are free.
Daily activities: Check the activity schedule to see what the current daily activities are, including mini lectures, enrichment and feeding, keeper walks and more