Several Half Moon Bay families who witnessed two young mountain lions wandering through their neighborhood are appalled that the animals were later shot and killed by state Fish and Game officials.
Nearby residents have joined a groundswell of critics who believe state wardens acted hastily and should have sought alternatives before using lethal force on the lions.
“These cubs weren’t a threat really, they were more scared of us than we were of them,” said Moss Beach resident Brandon Barsuglia, 20. “It was unnecessary to be so trigger happy.”
Barsuglia was one of the first people to spot the two cougars late in the day on Friday near the end of Correas Street in Half Moon Bay. The two lions, estimated to be no more than 10 months old, were evidently separated from their mother and had wandered to the neighborhood from the open space east of Arroyo Leon.
Hanging out that day at a friend’s home, Barsuglia says one of the lions hopped into the backyard while the other stayed on the street.
By that point, bystanders had already alerted authorities. When San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies arrived, they were prepared to take measures to prevent a public threat.
But witnesses say no danger ever materialized. At one point, Barsuglia, his friend and a Sheriff’s deputy cornered one of the young lions against a fence and watched its behavior. He estimated they were standing about three feet from the cougar for more than an hour.
“The lion was cool as could be, and it was moving real cautiously,” he said.
About six neighbors and deputies followed the other mountain lion out on Correas.
Sheriff’s deputies were advised by Fish and Game officials to give the mountain lions a clear path back into the wilderness. Residents along Correas say state wardens declined that day to come out to the incident.
The lions apparently hid from the rain for the night underneath a porch at the end of San Benito Street. On Saturday, the lions stayed in the neighborhood. The Sheriff’s Office was called out again, and this time two Fish and Game wardens also responded.
Around 6 p.m., residents asked to stay in their homes heard the sound of shots being fired, but they were under the impression that the cougars were tranquilized and being relocated. Three days later, they learned the animals were actually killed.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the Fish and Game handling of the situation has faced growing scrutiny from media organizations and conservationists. On Tuesday evening, Half Moon Bay Councilman John Muller emphasized during a public meeting that the city had nothing to do with the decision to put down the lions. By Thursday evening, the state agency appointed a new press spokesperson for the third time to handle inquiries about the cougar shooting.
Fish and Game officials explained that several factors went into the call to put down the cougars, but their main priority was protecting public safety. The animals demonstrated they were habituated to being in contact with humans, indicating they could return and present a threat, particularly to young children, said Fish and Game spokesman Mark Michilizzi.
“This situation was thought out carefully,” he said. “A cat at that age is capable of killing game, that’s the age they’re learning to hunt. They’re a lot stronger than what you think.”
Fish and Game officials last estimated the cougars were 10 months old and weighed between 25 to 30 pounds.
Fish and Game officials say their wardens considered using tranquilizer guns, but the animals could have gone berserk for the period before the sedative took effect. Even if the animals were subdued without harm, Michilizzi said they lacked an appropriate place to release the animals. There are many wild animal rehabilitation facilities throughout the state, he explained, but none are permitted to house mountain lions. Some zoos in the state have been known to house mountain lions, but those animals in captivity would have trouble being released back into the wild.
A predator at the top of the food chain, mountain lions generally seek to avoid contact with humans, and actual attacks are rare. The last fatal mauling in California occurred in 2004 in Orange County.