PETALUMA, Calif. (Deb Villalon/KTVU) - A mountain lion cub burned in Ventura County's December wildfire will not be released to the wild after all.
Experts have decided it's too risky, because he's too young to survive on his own.
Instead, the 5 month-old, named Charmander by his rescuers at CA Fish and Wildlife, will go to a wildlife refuge in Petaluma.
Eventually he will be part of their education program, and on view to visitors.
"That gives people a chance to really get up and personal with a mountain lion and learn about them, and have that appreciation for them and protecting their habitat," said Natalie Jones, of the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Center.
Charlie, as he's been nicknamed, will arrive next week.
He will join a female mountain lion, Nicole, who is almost two-years-old.
She arrived at the center when she was just a few months old, also an orphan, after a poacher killed her mother in Trinity County.
The two cats will be kept separate enclosures, next to each other, at first.
"They'll be able to see each other through the fence, kind of get to know each other, smell each other and everything," said Jones.
As people fled the wind-driven fires, so did countless animals in the Las Padres National Forest.
The fastest were able to run ahead of the flames.
Tracking collars show dozens of adult mountain lions did survive.
Charlie was found alone and very thin, with all four of his paws burned.
Veterinarians used fish skin -tilapia to be exact- to bandage and heal his feet.
The same technique was used with two bears, found near Ojai unable to walk, with third degree burns on their paws.
"After one of the first tilapia treatments on the first bear, she stood right away after waking up from anesthesia," said Dr. Jamie Peyton, of the U.C. Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where burned wildlife is being cared for.
Veterinarians were pleased at how the bears bounced back.
"They started to stand and move, which is good for them," explained Dr. Peyton, "because being a big animal, lying on your side for days and days at a time is not good for you."
The fish-skin grafts, a relatively new technique, were remarkably effective, and not something the injured animals mess with.
"When you sterilize the tilapia skin, it actually doesn't have that odor of fish anymore. So there's really no reason the animals would think it was food," said Dr. Deanna Clifford, senior veterinarian with the state Fish and Wildlife agency.
The bears were released back to the forest, and the hope was to do the same with Charlie.
But because he was so young when separated from his mother, his chances of survival are slim.
"They stay with their moms for about two years to learn how to hunt and how to do everything they need to do," said Jones, "and you really can't teach them that, as people."
So the cub will live out his days in the west Petaluma hills.
Thousands of animals arrive at the Center each year- sick, injured, and orphaned.
Most are kept secluded with minimal human contact as they recover, the better to keep them wild so they can be set free after their rehabilitation.
Others, like Charlie, are permanent residents who become more habituated to people.
"And Nicole is a very motherly, protecting mountain lion," said Jones, expressing the hope that Nicole will nurture Charlie much like his mother did.
Once the pair are accustomed to each other, visitors wil be able to observe them.
Tours are held Saturdays at 2 p.m., with reservations advised.
The non-profit center welcomes volunteers and donations, and will hold an annual fundraiser March 26 at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, dubbed "Pints for Paws."