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."
People who criticize the police shooting don't understand what could have happened. John Furrier, the Palo Alto resident whose dog Kelsey chased the puma, said, "This cat came off the tree after the shooting and leapt with power into the next yard, fatally wounded." If a fatally wounded cat could bound so far, imagine what might have happened if police had used a dart that takes 20 minutes or more to work. No one knows.
Furrier's children, Tyler, age 2, and Caroline, 3, were playing in the yard when Kelsey began barking at the puma. If the dog hadn't confronted the lion, it might have attacked his tots and dragged them away. Now, there's a shrine in Furrier's neighborhood for the fallen mountain lion.
"What would the shrine have been like for my kids?" Furrier asked.
What kind of shrine indeed? Bay Area residents have been known to show more empathy for animals than for children. In 1994, a mountain lion attacked and killed a 40-year-old mother of two as she was jogging in El Dorado County. Authorities tracked down and killed the mountain lion.
Concerned citizens pledged $21,000 to fund a home for the cougar's orphaned cub at the Folsom, Calif., Zoo, while a trust fund for Barbara Schoener's two children received only $9,000. It took Rush Limbaugh making the disparity a national cause before the children's trust attracted more money than the lion cub's fund.
If children take a back seat to animals, imagine the status of police officers. While many residents know the police did the right thing, others have been quick to assume that the police were trigger-happy. I can't imagine any police officer who would enjoy downing such an exquisite animal. It's a thankless chore done for one reason: to save lives.
Maybe there's some guilt behind the criticism. Savvy Californians understand that we have encroached on animal habitat -- which is why authorities at times must kill mountain lions and other wildlife. Perhaps some believe that if they side with the animals, that somehow absolves them of the blood shed in their defense.
But it doesn't. It only makes them ingrates who don't appreciate the people who risk their lives to keep their communities safe.
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