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May 26, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Our Town:Death of a big cat Our Town:Death of a big cat (May 26, 2004)

by Don Kazak

When I got a call early Monday morning last week telling me a mountain lion was on the loose in Palo Alto, my first reaction was: Yeah, right.

My reaction, about eight hours later, was that I didn't want my epitaph to read, "Eaten in the line of the duty." A lot happened in between.

Driving to the police command post at the Palo Alto Art Center, I saw sidewalks filled with kids going to nearby Walter Hays School. A mountain lion in the area? No way. But the cops already had officers at all the nearby schools and patrolling nearby streets.

The threat was real, the eyewitness sightings credible, and the officers were taking the danger seriously. For the next four hours, the police kept shifting people around.

But they also knew they couldn't cover everything.

Incident commanders Sgt. John Costa and Sgt. Mike Yore deployed officers and Lt. Jon Hernandez, the watch commander, urgently perused maps and made plans, advised by two wildlife experts, Mike Phillips from the Santa Clara County and Deborah Bartens from the city.

There was talk about using tranquillizer darts once the big cat was found, but those take 20 to 25 minutes to take effect, wildlife experts agreed.

"You guys are going to use deadly force, aren't you?" I asked Yore. He replied the officers knew what they had to do.

As the morning wore on, with no more sightings, it seemed the mountain lion had gone to ground somewhere. Maybe it got back to San Francisquito Creek to return to the hills. We were told the big cat can blend in and hide anywhere, even in the trees and bushes around us -- we wouldn't know it was there. I glanced behind me. I should have been looking up.

The cops became increasingly worried about what would happen at 2:30 p.m., when the schools released their students.

Then came the call at 12:10 p.m. that an 11-year-old black Labrador had chased the big cat away from a house barely a block away from the command post. Officers cordoned off several blocks and went in.

So did reporters and photographers and dozens of curious residents.

I was armed with a pen and notebook. The pen can be mightier than the sword, but this wasn't one of those times.

I interviewed John Furrier, whose dog, Kelsey, made the big cat bolt. We were near his house, not far from a big tree at the corner of Walter Hays and Walnut drives.

Later, I walked back under the tree to look down Walter Hays, nodded to the cop on post there, and then crossed the street to my Jeep to call in an update to the Weekly.

On my left, I noticed that a police officer with an AR-15 assault rifle had walked up. She aimed the weapon into the tree and fired. The mountain lion fell out of it, sprang up, dashed maybe 30 feet, went to ground under a bush, and died. About a half-dozen cops rushed up, guns drawn, wary that the big cat might still be alive .

The debate exploded almost immediately.

Hundreds of e-mails and phone calls criticized the killing. Why did the mountain lion have to be killed? Why weren't tranquillizer darts used? Why didn't the cops have any? The questions are fair and reasonable from a caring community, and from around the state and beyond.

But I kept thinking of the hundreds of kids who would be on the same streets in an hour or so, walking home. If one of them had fallen victim to the big cat, we would be having a much different debate now.

The mountain lion was magnificent, 108 pounds of lean muscle. It also streaked about 30 feet after it was fatally wounded by a high-powered bullet that went through both of its lungs.

I love animals, but I vote for the kids in this case.

It was just sad. The mountain lion shouldn't have been here.

In the "Snows of Kilimanjaro," Hemingway describes a leopard found dead high on the mountainside, and penned a famous line: "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.


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