On being in the wrong place at the wrong time

At 3:30 Tuesday morning, police shot and killed a mountain lion in the “Gourmet Ghetto” area of Berkeley (just a few blocks from Chez Panisse and a number of other trendy eateries). They had been tracking the cat through residential backyards for about an hour after someone reported seeing it in a vacant lot. They killed her after deciding that she posed a significant threat to public safety. At 3 a.m.? When she was clearly trying to evade human beings?

My first thought was one that many other readers had: why couldn’t authorities simply tranquilize and relocate her? They had been tracking her for an hour while she was in command of her senses. Surely they could have tracked her another 10-15 minutes while a drug kicked in and debilitated her? But that was never even a consideration:

Berkeley police don’t carry tranquillizer (sic) darts, and they aren’t standard issue for wardens either, (Fish and Game Warden Patrick) Foy said. “We don’t carry tranquillizers (sic) drugs in our patrol trucks,” he said. “There are some instances where you have time and you can get the tranquillizers (sic), but that’s not at three in the morning.”

Why not? Is it really safer to have three officers firing shotguns into the night? (The first two officers missed.) And couldn’t they have contacted a vet, the zoo, or the Department of Fish and Game during the hour they were pursuing the cat?

These kinds of encounters with “wildlife” are becoming much more frequent as so-called suburbs press more deeply into previously undeveloped ranges and habitats. If a bear or mountain lion wanders out of the “the wild” and into the neighborhood – an increasingly fuzzy boundary – chances are good that the local police departments (and even Fish and Game authorities) are going to consider it an “imminent threat,” which – according to California Department of Fish and Game’s Public Safety Wildlife Guidelines – must be “humanely euthanized (shot, killed, dispatched, destroyed, etc.).” “Public safety wildlife species confirmed by Department field staff to pose an imminent threat to public safety shall not be relocated for release.”

Again I ask, why not? Of COURSE human safety is a top priority. But what if an imminent threat can be – what’s the law enforcement term? – de-escalated in a non-lethal way? And what if law enforcement officers and game wardens were trained and encouraged to consider that possibility first? That might require some attitude adjustments. We have a long cultural history of reflexively and routinely dismissing the basic needs of nonhuman animals when they come into conflict with human interests. But given the likelihood that these conflicts and encounters will increase, perhaps it’s time that dart guns and tranquilizers DO become standard issue, so that officers are equipped to consider a non-lethal response first. Sadly, it will not always (or even often) be possible.* But without training and equipment, it’s not even an option.

[*Indeed, even a successful darting does not guarantee that wildlife officials will relocate an animal. On the same morning the mountain lion was killed in Berkeley, Colorado Division of Wildlife agents successfully tranquilized a mother bear and her two cubs after they were chased out of a resident’s home. After the bears fell out of the tree, they were euthanized. Were they gravely injured in the fall? The story implies otherwise: “‘…once they start exhibiting that behavior of getting into human habitation, that’s an indication they’ll continue to do that,’ (spokesperson Michael) Seraphin said. ‘Relocating them was not an option.’” Really? My recollection is that Colorado has some pretty spacious non-residential wilderness areas to consider.]

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