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.)

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.

(Image borrowed from Google Images.)

[*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.]

Cross-posted at Left at the Altar, if I ever get around to putting it there.


One response to “On being in the wrong place at the wrong time

  • Brian

    Background for me: I’ve walked through that area more than a hundred times. And my great grandfather killed a cougar near a hotel once (and the chef served it for dinner, which my GGF refused to eat: it’s a cat!). And I’ve spent enough time in the Pacific Northwest and California to know that cougars EAT PEOPLE! So my ethical instinct on this story immediately went straight to consequentialism: dead animal or dead human? In which case the police were clearly right in their actions. A big cat can be considered an armed and dangerous killer, because that is exactly what they are, even if typically not towards humans. I’ve watched a mountain lion play with a ball in a zoo, and after seeing that I can’t imagine anyone fighting one off hand to hand (though it does happen); they are seriously armed creatures. Cougars eat raw meat, and humans, by some odd coincidence, just happen to be made out of raw meat. The ending could have been worse: somebody’s pet or a person (likely a homeless person) could have been killed.

    But then I had to rethink my instinct and try a theological and virtue ethics approach (good old Thomism!) The creature belonged to God. It had its own entelechy (built-in purpose for existing and direction to live it out). Killing it should have been a last resort, which it may not have been. Even when it was coming at the cops, they could have shot to injure, not kill. Maybe that is why the first two shots missed. I would have to say if I were facing that situation I think I would not have had the presence of mind to think mercifully, though.

    And the virtue ethics side: what kind of people are we training ourselves to be through these actions? We are afraid of wildlife – that can be good. We kill when we feel threatened – that can be bad. Our police are lacking in training and tools to deal with the situations they face – that is very bad. Are we teaching ourselves to be callous towards the natural world? Perhaps we are engaged in the vices of pride and lack of charity. But what virtues could have changed this situation? Would I have asked the cop to run up and scruff the cougar by the neck? Foolhardiness. Use a Taser on it? Probably imprudent.

    What if we back up the situation to the larger scale: could it have been relocated? To where? If it learned to not fear humans then it would become a “problem” and probably come back. A zoo might have been the best option, but even then, big cats in zoos are a sad sight (unless they are playing with a ball, in which case they are a scary sight). Have humans overextended their justifiable land use? Perhaps at the global scale, but in this case Berkeley has been populated for 150 years, this is not a recent urban sprawl problem.

    I think the cops did the right thing, given the context: cougar coming towards you and no tools except guns. I am pretty sure that I would have done the same. It would have been nice if they had had other options. Cougars are amazing creatures but I hope to never see one unconfined – the responding cops were brave to be there at all. I think we can safely say that nobody really wanted the creature dead, but this was a case of bad moral luck that actually had the second best possible outcome (only one death), of several options (all but one of which was worse). Thanks for your thought-provoking post Marilyn!

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