Some years ago, I had a neighbor who brought her pet bird to a swimming pool frequented by cats and people. We warned the bird owner that the cats would attack her bird, but the neighbor insisted that cats couldn't be that "mean." She believed that -- until a cat pounced on her pet, forcing irritated neighbors to pry the happy feline off the frightened bird.
I can't help but think of that neighbor as I watch the reaction to the Palo Alto, Calif., police shooting of a mountain lion that had strolled into a suburban neighborhood. Maybe it's one of those Only in California things, but a number of area residents, apparently convinced that the cat would not have hurt any people, have bombarded the Palo Alto Police Department with faultfinding e-mails.
"Dirty bloodthirsty bastards" is how one San Francisco resident described the police in an e-mail to the San Francisco Chronicle. A correspondent on craigslist.org called the cops "low-lifes" for killing "a poor mountain lion." Other Web sites displayed choice sexist remarks about the female officer who shot the cougar.
Elliot Katz of the Mill Valley, Calif., group In Defense of Animals told the Chronicle that after a black Labrador chased the lion up a tree, the puma would not "come down where there are dogs or a bunch of people." Police could have shot the cat with tranquilizer darts, said Katz, and the cat would have stayed in the tree until the drugs caused it to fall.
Most mountain lions aren't interested in eating people, especially adults, but sometimes they do. Logic suggests that attacks against humans are more likely to happen when mountain lions have so little fear of people that they lounge on their front yards.
Recent experience suggests that tranquilizing mountain lions isn't as breezy as dart-gun fans believe. In March, Morgan Hill, Calif., police tried to dart three cougar cubs. One became spooked, ran off before it was darted and was killed by a car. Police had to shoot a second cub as it tried to tear through a family's screen door. Only one cub was tranquilized and released in the wild.
As Troy Swauger of the state Department of Fish and Game noted, it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the tranquilizers to work; darting a mountain lion gives it "the freedom to take off" and "puts everyone at risk."