January 24, 2024

UH and Houston Zoo fawn over celebrity cougar cubs

Meet Shasta VII and his little bro Louie.

Shasta is the official mascot of the University of Houston Cougars and lives at the Houston Zoo. The history of both entities, located in the Greater Southeast District, are entwined by the story of Shastas past and present.

Way back in 1947, members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity bought a live mountain lion in Mexico. Student Joe Randol won a contest in the The Cougar student newspaper to name the new mascot Shasta:

“Shasta (as in ‘she has to’). Shasta have a cage, Shasta have a keeper, Shasta have a winning ball club, Shasta have the best,” he wrote.

Shasta attended football games along with her Cougar Guard of students. One of the animal’s toes had to be amputated, inspiring a school spirit hand signal — a folded thumb over ring finger.

Female cougars held the position of mascot until Shasta V’s death in 1987, when the school stopped using live mascots. But in 2011, the Houston Zoo took in an orphaned cub that the UH Alumni Association co-sponsored as the new Shasta VI.

When Shasta VI died, the zoo spread the word that it had a vacant cougar habitat and keepers with experience. It wasn’t long before the Washington State Fish & Wildlife Services sent two orphaned 4-week-old cubs.

Shasta VII — who is male — and Louie came to Houston in November 2022 and thrived behind the scenes until their public debut in February 2023. They are big boys now, but still not full grown.

“Shasta currently weighs 100 pounds, and Louie weighs 90 pounds,” said John Register, curator of carnivores and hoofstock. “Fully grown cougars could weigh up to 180 to 200 pounds. They have a varied diet, they get ground meat, bone-in meat, bones, whole prey items such as rats, fish, chicken, rabbits, etc., in various amounts throughout the week. In total, it’s approximately three to four pounds of food every day.”

That’s a lot of kitty chow, but the brothers do earn their keep.

Although they don’t attend games, they did join in the long-held tradition of guarding the senior rings in December 2022. The then-11-week-old cougars were curious about the two ring boxes placed in their cub habitat (along with meatballs). On Dec. 4, 2023, the pair guarded the entire stash of senior rings in their adult habitat in full view of UH seniors.

“I didn’t know they did this whole thing with the rings,” said senior Alberto Garcia. He received an e-mail about the event at the zoo, and “I thought it would be cool. And it was! We listened to the keeper talk about the cougars and how they care for them.”

“Shasta enjoys doing his part for U of H,” said Register. “He enjoys guarding the rings.”

The day after, seniors received their rings in a ceremony. Now Shasta VII and Louie have to make do with rock climbing instead of box climbing until next December.

UH students can visit the zoo for free by reserving tickets online here. They must show their student ID at entry. And don’t forget, you can Uber there with a discount from the Southeast District. Just use promo code r3lrLOOUXXZ on the Uber app.

— by Marene Gustin

— photos by Alberto Garcia