Santa Monica, California - No one is exactly sure how a mountain lion roamed down into the heart of Santa Monica on Tuesday morning, coming face-to-face with the janitor of an office complex not far from the city’s bustling shopping district.
But he turned out to be an unwelcomed visitor--and that generated much debate in the city.
With news choppers circling overhead, Santa Monica police managed to corner the 3-year-old lion in the courtyard of the complex. Police said they made several attempts to calm what they described as an aggressive feline using tranquilizing darts, nonlethal bullets and a fire hose. When that failed to stop the lion from trying to escape, a police officer fatally shot it.
Authorities defended the killing, saying the lion posed a public threat if it managed to get back on the street. They noted there was a preschool across the street and shoppers nearby.
“A variety of means were used to try to keep the animal back in the courtyard,” said Santa Monica Police Lt. Robert Almada. “The animal continued to charge and attempted to flee. It was euthanized to protect the public safety.”
But in Santa Monica, a city known for its robust civic discord and love of causes, some were quick to protest.
Bill Dyer, 78, said police are too quick to reach for their weapons when dealing with animals.
“What was the rush?” asked Dyer, a regional director for In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit animal protection organization. “They should have taken their time. This land belongs to the animals, too. This is not just our land.”
Santa Monica resident Synnove Naess was visibly shaken after learning the cat was killed in the neighborhood where she attends art class.
“Everybody is so devastated about this,” she said. “I'm just so sad. This could happen again. Are they going to shoot animals every time this happens?”
Officials at the state Department of Fish and Game said it was highly unusual for a mountain lion to wander into a largely populated urban area. In fact, nobody in the department could ever recall seeing one in Santa Monica.
“There is almost no way for [the animal] to get here from there,” said Andrew Hughan, a Fish and Game spokesman, pointing to a map at the distance between the Santa Monica Mountains and the shopping district. “But this one did.”
About 6,000 mountain lions live in the state's mountains and canyons, Hughan said.
Since 2002, the National Park Service has conducted a study to learn more about the habits of the mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. So far, they have monitored 22 of the wild cats living in the area.
The sight of the 75-pound beast frightened Rogelio Rodriguez. The janitor started his predawn shift at Emeritus College by emptying the trash can in the courtyard. The rustling of the garage bag startled the big cat.
The mountain lion, who was pawing at the glass door, saw Rodriguez and turned toward him.
“I saw the cat come to where I was,” he said. “I ran into the building and called the police.”