Mountain Lion Shot and Killed
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
By Kristen Munson
Gilroy – Police shot and killed a young mountain lion perched in a tree in the backyard of a home on Polk Court Sunday morning, fearing that the big cat was a danger to the residents in the high density neighborhood just south of Leavesley Road. Department of Fish and Game officials say the shooting appears warranted. The animal will be tested for rabies today.
"Tranquilizing it was not an option," said Gilroy Police Sgt. Wes Stanford. "It was Memorial Day weekend – people were everywhere … If he (didn’t) run to the creek what options do we have? We couldn’t risk that. It would have been nice if we could have found a way to trap it."
At about 10:45am a call came in from a man who thought he saw a mountain lion leap over a 6-foot fence. Shortly after a 911 call came in reporting that there was a mountain lion in a tree in the backyard of 555 Polk Court.
"We went and we warned the neighbors," said Polk Court resident Angel Lara. "The most we have here is possums. ‘It’s not a bobcat, trust me,’ I said. It had a thick tail – and long – that’s how I knew."
Police warned residents to stay inside their homes until the mountain lion left the area. But word of the cat spread fast and soon neighbors were coming outside to catch a glimpse of the animal, he said.
"He looked scared, but he was big. He was just looking straight at us," Lara said. "It didn’t hiss or anything. I figured if he was mad he would hiss or something."
Police fired at the mountain lion after determining that they had no other options at the time. Three shots were used.
A Fish and Game warden who inspected that cat at the police station estimated it was between 60 and 75 pounds and about 2 years old. As of press time, wardens were unable to determine its sex.
Though attacks on humans are rare – there have been 13 verified attacks on humans by mountain lions in the state since 1890 – police were concerned there was no safe place for the cat to run after being tranquilized, if it were to escape. It can take anywhere from five to 30 minutes for a cat to go down depending on where it is hit with a dart, Fish and Game officials said.
While police waited for a warden to arrive from Monterey, they tried to keep the animal in the tree, scaring it back up twice to buy time and explore other options rather than shooting it.
"It’s unusual for these things to be out during the day," Stanford said. "Obviously it went in that yard for something. The fact that there was a dog in the yard, we were more likely to believe (it was hunting.)"
Residents of 555 Polk Court put their pitbull inside the garage for safekeeping, according to a Fish and Game warden.
Though Gilroy police have a tranquilizer gun, they feared the animal was too close to residences and South Valley Middle School to take the chance of wounding the cat and having it run off angry and in defense mode.
"After they’re shot with a tranquilizer they tend to act like a wounded animal – they can get more aggressive," Stanford said.
With the middle school within eyesight of the tree, less than half a mile separating Leavesley Road and the outlets to the north, U.S. 101 directly to the east and San Ysidro Park about half a mile to the south – police didn’t want to take the risk of having the mountain lion escape into nearby neighborhoods and playgrounds to the west.
"Those really are tough calls," said Steve Martarano, spokesperson for the Department of Fish and Game. "Mountain lion attacks are very rare, but unfortunately they do end up in situations where they do encroach upon public safety and law enforcement has to make that call. Their habitat gets encroached upon more and more by development. We’re seeing this happen more and more."
Mountain lions are protected from hunting under Proposition 117, passed in 1990. Police are not supposed to shoot a mountain lion if the animal is not an imminent threat, and individuals whose livestock or pets are threatened may shoot at a cat after applying for a 10-day permit from the Department of Fish and Game, Martarano said.
"There will be complaints – why did you have to kill it? Why couldn’t you tranquilize it?" he said. "Our policies are not going to make everybody happy."
Most mountain lions found in residential or urban areas are young cats recently pushed out by their mothers to find their own hunting territory, he said.
Police believe the animal may have come from along the creek that runs between U.S. 101 and Polk Court.
"They take these creek channels as little expressways," explained mountain lion expert Henry Coletto, who served as a Fish and Game warden in the county for 37 years. "A lot of times they just start heading in a direction and instead of heading back toward the hills, they’ll head towards the city … especially if spooked by a dog or human they may head further into town."
A wildlife veterinarian may have been able to tranquilize the animal successfully, Coletto said. However, there wasn’t a wildlife vet available and law enforcement rarely come into contact with these animals.
He noted that discharging firearms at cats in urban neighborhoods is also dangerous.
"When we go into an area like this and fire rounds – where do these rounds go?" he said.
Coletto teaches area police about when to shoot and not shoot mountain lions.
"Without going over to the area, it seems like they did the right thing," he said. "The adult cats know better that they can stay up in the hills to hunt.
Kristen Munson covers crime and courts for The Dispatch . Reach her at (408) 847-7158 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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