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Thompson Park Zoo mountain lion celebrates third birthday

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WATERTOWN — Amid a collection of streamers, displays and treats for the third birthday of Ninja, the Thompson Park Zoo’s resident mountain lion, the animal spotted something he did not like: a visitor’s stroller.

A recent school event, zookeeper Brenda A. Fisk said, left a negative impression of strollers on the mountain lion, also known as Sorkey. Since that event, Ms. Fisk said, Ninja will sometimes hiss and paw at them when they come close.

“They stress him out big-time now,” she said.

As Ms. Fisk explained this, Sally M. Rebl walked up to the exhibit with her three small children, one of them in a stroller, leading to some concerned looks from Ninja.

After Ms. Fisk explained his dislike of strollers, Mrs. Rebl decided to move along to other exhibits, and added she wasn’t offended by the mountain lion’s preferences.

“It’s his birthday,” she said. “He can cry if he wants to.”

To mark the mountain lion’s birthday, zoo staff set up his exhibit area with hamsters, chicks and hard-boiled eggs, and placed cinnamon on the ground, which Ninja eagerly rolled around in. Among the gifts for the 3-year-old was a new ball and a giant box, along with a model deer with meat pieces inside.

As the crowds slowly departed the exhibit after singing him “Happy Birthday,” Ninja jumped and pulled down a large steak attached to the enclosure’s Cougarciser, which holds up food with a spring a few feet off the ground to provide some resistance and exercise. Mountain lions can be called cougars, catamounts and pumas interchangeably.

Ninja’s birthday brought back fond memories for Ms. Fisk, who was among the staffers who drove down to pick him up from the airport in Syracuse. Riding in the back seat next to his crate, she remembered Ninja being “a little nervous” for the ride.

As the years have gone by, she said, the mountain lion has become more comfortable at the zoo.

“He’s so laid back,” Ms. Fisk said. “He’s a good boy.”

Among those signs of confidence, she said, was the call and response he had as she made a smooching noise toward him.

Recognizing the noise and Ms. Fisk, Ninja turned around and called back to her.

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