LINVILLE — Aspen, the Western cougar who had lived at Grandfather Mountain for almost all of its life, died March 25 at the age of 15, the park’s nonprofit owners announced.

“According to habitat staff, Aspen grew increasingly unresponsive following a weekend tooth-removal surgery, which was also intended to diagnose some other ailments,” the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation stated March 26.

“After (Aspen’s) keepers kept him under 24-hour observation, his condition only worsened, and he was humanely euthanized on March 25.”

The park said that Aspen lived two years longer than than the average lifespan of a Western cougar in the wild.

“Aspen was such a great ambassador of his species and for Grandfather Mountain,” said Jesse Pope, president and executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “Everyone that met him was in awe of his gentle nature and his interest in meeting those who visited with him.”

“I was fortunate to work with Aspen when he first came to Grandfather Mountain,” Pope said. “Helping care for him was one of the highlights of my career on the mountain. I really don’t remember a day on Grandfather when Aspen wasn’t some part of it.”

According to the GMSF, Aspen was born June 22, 2003, at Rocky Mountain Wildlife Park in Pagosa Springs, Colo. Having recently lost an elderly cougar, the GMSF agreed to adopt Aspen three months later.

“Aspen’s journey to Grandfather Mountain started in a twin-engine airplane on Oct. 3, 2003, when he was only three months old,” the GMSF stated. “The plane came courtesy of friends from Luray Caverns in Luray, Va., a member of the Southern Highland Attractions organization, of which Grandfather Mountain is also a member.”

“Upon first sight, Aspen immediately began stealing the hearts of everyone he came in contact with, which he continued to do every day for the rest of his life,” said Christie Tipton, Grandfather’s chief habitats curator.

Since Aspen was so small upon his arrival in the Western North Carolina High Country, he could not safely reside with his adult cougar counterparts in the main habitat, living in a special outdoor holding area made specifically for him, the park said.

“Aspen spent his cub-hood days playing with toys, pouncing on keepers, chasing the cats, nursing on blankets and fleeces and licking his keepers’ heads — especially Pope’s, who served as a habitat keeper at the time,” the GMSF statement said.

Eventually, Aspen was moved to the cougar habitat, which GMSF said he shared with Sheaba and Nikita, both of who have since passed away.

“No matter where he was in the habitat, as soon as he saw his keeper friends at the overlook or on the other side of the fence, he would light up and start calling to them immediately,” Tipton said. “He loved purring and ‘talking’ to his keepers every morning, and he loved meeting (most) new people, making new friends and playing chase games with the smallest of them. He won the countless hearts of every person who has met him over the years.”

Aspen is survived by Logan and Trinity, a sibling pair of Western cougars found orphaned as cubs in Idaho, which Grandfather Mountain rescued in 2016 with the generous support of Bob and Susan Wilson.

“Our keeper staff did an extraordinary job caring for Aspen throughout his life, but their love and affection was never more apparent than in his final days,” Pope said. “He was given the very best care any animal could hope for, and for that, I’m very grateful to Christie Tipton and her highly skilled staff.”

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