By Joshua Mann
The University of Houston's new mascot entered his home in the Houston Zoo for the first time Saturday, prowling around the enclosure in front of adoring crowds before climbing up the cliffs to nap in the sun.
The 6-month-old cougar, named Shasta VI, was welcomed to his new home during a party hosted by the UH Alumni Association.
He's the university's first live mascot since Shasta V died in 1989.
"We had a great crowd, beautiful day, a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm," said Alumni Association President Mike Pede, 46. "I bet we had 500 or 600 people right at the announcement, and it couldn't have been better."
The crowd, clad in red and white, pressed up against the fence and glass that surrounded the enclosure, and banners welcoming Shasta VI lined the back wall.
"You can see a lot of pride," said UH student Nick Brannon, 19. "It's cool to be somewhere outside of campus and still see the school spirit."
Cub was orphan
Pede, who was the costumed mascot during the last two years that Shasta V was alive, spent significant time around the cougar.
"She was a very wonderful animal," he said. "You could get close; I pet Shasta a couple times and was around when they'd take her for walks in Lynn Eusan Park. It was great."
UH and the zoo discussed the possibility of using a cougar as a mascot, but the age of the animals and the tradition of making appearances on campus delayed implementation of the plans, said Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi.
"Then we started talking about technology: We can broadcast it live, we can do things in this exhibit," he said. "And then we got this new cougar. Finally it worked. We think it will be a better experience, because more people will get to see it."
Shasta VI's mother was killed illegally by a hunter in Washington and was rescued after a week on his own.
Despite this, said Curator Beth Schaefer, 45, he appears to be perfectly healthy.
"He was a little hungry and dehydrated, but other than that, he's great," she said.
Shasta VI was shy at first, but he's becoming bolder with age, said Carnivore Supervisor Kevin Hodge, 36.
"He's started recently stalking the birds and squirrels that go into the exhibit," he said. "The older he gets, the more adventurous he is in exploring everything.
"But he has kind of a laid-back personality; he hasn't been aggressive toward any of the keepers."
Shasta's newfound bravery came as a relief to Pede.
"We were jokingly saying that my biggest fear was that Shasta wouldn't come out, and that he would hide behind a rock for 20 minutes," Pede said. "But he came right out."
Shasta is currently not able to share the enclosure with the zoo's other cougar, Haley, but that should change within four months, Hodge said.
"Once he gets a little closer in size to Haley, then we'll start the introductions," he said. "Right now they can see each other and smell each other. They just can't touch each other."