Last December, a call came into the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources that a large cat, possibly a mountain lion, had been spotted in a tree on a Bourbon County farm, not far from Paris.
Wildlife officials were skeptical. Mountain lions are top-line predators—large cats, also known as cougars, panthers, pumas and catamounts. Mountain lions also have been missing from Kentucky for more than 150 years. Federal wildlife officials believe there are about 30,000 mountain lions in the United States, mainly in the mountain west. A tiny population of the Florida panther, a mountain lion subspecies, is know to exist in southwest Florida. Lions are slowly expanding their range, but during the past century only a handful of sightings have been confirmed east of the Mississippi River. It’s doubtful anyone reading this has seen a mountain lion in the wild, myself included.
Lions are beautiful creatures: sleek and strong, solitary territorial hunters, elusive, fast, stealthy and potentially dangerous. Attacks by mountain lions on humans are rare, and while only a few are reported annually, caution is advised when hiking, camping or traveling through cat country. A mature mountain lion can weigh up to 180 pounds, but the average is about 145 pounds with males slightly larger than females. They can make a vertical leap of 15 feet and a jump of about 40 feet, travel long distances at a 10 miles-per-hour clip and can hit 50 miles per hour sprinting over a short distance. Mountain lions regularly feed on deer but can easily take down an elk or other large mammals, including livestock.
A state conservation officer responded to the Bourbon County call and was undoubtedly surprised to find an adult mountain lion coiled in a tree and a neighborhood dog barking at the strange critter. The cat had moved from the tree where it had first been spotted. The cougar was agitated but probably not frightened. A mountain lion would have little to fear from a domesticated dog.
By the time the officer arrived, it was nearly 5:30 p.m., close to dusk on a wintry afternoon. State conservation officers—like their colleagues who serve in other areas of law enforcement—are responsible for public safety and trained to make on-the-spot decisions. The officer surveyed the situation and made a decision. He took a firearm from his vehicle and shot the animal. State game agency officials fully supported the officer’s decision to kill the lion.
The 125-pound male cougar appeared to be young and healthy, with no outward signs of having traveled long distances through rough country. A necropsy was performed to determine if the cat was wild or a captive animal that had been released or had escaped. Results were still pending at press time.
The event garnered considerable media attention, which triggered an avalanche of public outrage. While a few comments supported the officer’s actions, most did not.
“I guess the idiot wildlife officer’s shift was over so it was easier to murder a trapped cat in a tree than to do the right thing,” raged one reader.
“What threat did this animal pose?” queried another. “It had obviously retreated.”
“He [the lion] shouldn’t have been shot! Bad call! It’s not his fault he ended up at the wrong place. They could have staked out the tree all night! So cruel and unnecessary,” posted another.
Like everyone, fish and wildlife officials make their share of poor decisions. This was not one of them. No one, particularly conservation officers, wishes to see a rare animal killed. However, public safety is paramount, even when the risk is minimal. These guys always err on the side of caution, as they should. This lion—a predator without equal in Kentucky—was near a populated area. Had it escaped and caused an injury or death, the public response would have been much different.
It’s also important to remember that wildlife are wild—not inherently dangerous, perhaps, but often volatile and unpredictable, characteristics that makes them potentially extremely dangerous.
Several commenters questioned why the lion was not tranquilized and relocated. In November of last year, a mountain lion that had been seen in and around a neighborhood of Boulder, Colo., was successfully tranquilized and moved. (Several neighborhood residents did report missing pets.) In July of last year, a lion spotted near a Sandy, Utah, shopping mall was tranquilized. That cat died from the tranquilization.
One reason a tranquilize attempt was not made on the Bourbon County lion was timing. Darkness was falling. Darting an animal is a fairly complicated process with a wide margin for error. Kentucky conservation officers have neither the training nor the equipment for tranquilizing an animal. It would have taken an hour or so to set up a dart attempt. And there’s little disagreement that attempting a tranquilizing shot on a large predator after dark would have been foolishly dangerous and ill advised.
State and federal game officials in western states—like Colorado and Utah—are more prepared to deal with encroaching lions, which are part of the landscape. Should the big cats begin an unlikely migration back to Kentucky, local wildlife officials and the public will have to decide how best to deal with them. The answers will be neither simple nor easy.