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May 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 21, 2004

Public roaring over lion killing Public roaring over lion killing (May 21, 2004)

Communications faltered, but neighbors generally less perturbed than outsiders

by Jaime Marconette & Bill D'Agostino

Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson admitted this week there could have been better communication with residents concerning the controversial mountain lion shooting on Monday.

To address this lapse, Johnson will hold a public meeting next week to discuss better informing the public about such crises in the future.

The meeting will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 26 inside the City Council chambers of City Hall. A later meeting that day will focus on public safety issues related to mountain lions.

Johnson admitted to being so focused on getting more officers to the scene and finding the mountain lion that she initially forgot to use the city's emergency telephone alert system to notify residents. The chief said she was about to use the system when the lion was found, shot and killed.

"We should have, in retrospect and hindsight, activated that earlier on," Johnson said. "That's one of our lessons learned."

The city purchased the alert system after the community was severely damaged by flooding in 1998. After the late-night flood, the city received harsh criticisms for failing to notify residents.

Wednesday's meeting will primarily focus on finding new ways to communicate important safety messages, including neighborhood e-mail bulletin boards, Johnson said. The phone system has limitations in terms of how long a message can be put out.

The second Wednesday meeting, starting at 6:30 p.m. inside City Hall, will center on recognizing mountain lion risks. County Supervisor Liz Kniss, Sheriff Laurie Smith, and mountain lion expert Henry Coletto will be speaking.

Both meetings may provide a chance for upset locals to air protests concerning the shooting, which sparked immediate outcry and a memorial to the puma. Internet blogs have been rife with discussion about the topic, with people from as far away as the Netherlands debating the police's actions.

A man even posted a cry for people to protest the killing on craigslist.

Outcry began almost immediately. Annika Simpson was standing outside Palo Alto's City Hall Monday night holding a small sign accusing the police of animal cruelty. She said she saw the shooting on television.

"It was graphic," Simpson said. "It was horrible."

The police department has received hundreds of e-mails, mostly critical of the decision to shoot the mountain lion.

The police chief said she has never before seen such uproar. Even when a Palo Alto officer shot a man at Stanford, "there wasn't hardly any response to that," Johnson said. "I don't know what it is."

Other police departments that recently shot lions received nothing approaching this level of attention, Johnson added. Part of the reason may be the fact that television cameras captured the shooting as it happened, she predicted.

Many of the most "vicious and vile" e-mails came from outside the community, Johnson added.

"While the Internet has been a great tool in many ways, it's real easy for someone to sit at a computer and blast off a flaming e-mail to someone they don't know," Johnson said.

A necropsy conducted this week showed the male lion to be 99 pounds, and between 2- and 3-years-old. The seemingly healthy lion had nothing in its stomach, but was not undernourished, said Steve Martarano, spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Game.

The department was not planning any DNA test to see if the lion was the same as the one that allegedly attacked two horses at Stanford. If the lion had attacked a human, there would "definitely" have been a DNA test. Barring a strong reaction, however, no further investigation will be conducted.

"The chances were probably pretty remote that it was the same lion because there are a lot of lions in that area," Martarano said.

Despite the rampant protests from outside the community, many residents of the neighborhoods near the shooting said they approved of the decision, due to the threat the cougar posed.

"I'm glad they got it," said Dan Ganschow of Pine Street, who saw the cougar at 5:45 a.m. Monday while walking his dog. "There are lots of kids and elderly people in the neighborhood."

After hearing of the situation by phone Monday morning, Meg Waite Clayton of Parkinson drove her children to school. She also mentioned her family dealt with the situation through humor to ease tension.

"My son referred to the kids biking to school this morning as meals on wheels," Waite Clayton said.

The hunt for the animal ended shortly after 1 p.m. when Palo Alto police officer Corey Preheim shot the mountain lion out of a tree at the corner of Walter Hayes Drive and Walnut Avenue. Preheim, who has declined requests for interviews, has been the target of much of the harshest criticisms, Johnson said.

"People are calling her a murderer and worse," Johnson noted via e-mail. "She is upset about having to kill the lion but knew she was doing her job."

"I'm sorry I had to do that," Preheim reportedly told a city naturalist at the scene.

After the shooting, a memorial of cards, poems and flowers was set up at the base of the tree where the lion was shot. Palo Alto elementary schools allegedly called in grief counselors for students.

Palo Alto Police Capt. Torin Fischer said the department consulted with the Fish and Game Department, County Vector Control, Palo Alto city Naturalist Deborah Bartens, and the Morgan Hill Police Department.

Tranquilizing a mountain lion does not produce instant results, and could have taken as long as half an hour before sedating the animal, police officials argued. They add that if police lost sight of the mountain lion before it became immobile, the animal could have found a place to sleep off the drug.

"Tranquilizers don't work like they do on TV," Johnson said. "Sometimes they don't work at all and can actually agitate the animal."

A tranquilizer gun was on the scene, Johnson confirmed on Thursday, clearing up days of confusion on the issue. Yet, both Johnson and Fischer said a decision had already been made to kill the mountain lion based on information gathered from knowledgeable sources.

"When you consider that this animal could jump a 6- to 8-foot fence in one bound, we would have no way of tracking it." Johnson said. "If we tried to shoot it when it was moving, with all the news people and onlookers around, there would be the chance of hitting a person."

"I thought that the [TV news] video tape gave the wrong impression," said John Furrier, a father of four young children who lives next door to where the shooting happened.

"It's a lot more of a serious presence than people think," Furrier said.

Furrier's black lab, Kelsey, was called a hero for his role in finding the mountain lion, chasing the puma into a tree.

Intern Jaime Marconette can be reached at Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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