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Police investigate why mountain lion was shot in office courtyard

Santa Monica Police Department / Reuters

A mountain lion is seen as it is cornered in Santa Monica, Calif., on Tuesday.

Santa Monica police are conducting an internal investigation into the shooting death of a mountain lion that appeared in an office building courtyard in the city’s downtown, police Sgt. Richard Lewis told msnbc.com.

The cat, a 3-year-old male weighing about 90 pounds, had apparently wandered into the city overnight from the Santa Monica Mountains and jumped over an eight-foot wall into the building courtyard, Lewis said. At 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a maintenance worker called police, who then called in the fire department, California Fish and Game Department and a wildlife biologist from the National Parks Service.

This was an unfamiliar situation, Lewis said -- the first time in the memories of veteran Santa Monica police officers that a mountain lion had ventured into the city.

The officials decided a member of Fish and Game would shoot the mountain lion with a heavy dosage tranquilizer dart, hoping he would slump into a corner and officials could then transport him back to the mountains.

Mountain lion shot, killed

“That would cause one of two reactions,” Lewis said. “The animal could become aggressive, or it could become docile and lay down. It chose to do what mountain lions do and it tried to escape.”

The officers acted quickly and shot pepper balls in hopes that the animal would slink back into the corner of the courtyard. They sprayed mist at the glass doors framing the courtyard so the cat wouldn’t try to go through them.

But it did anyway, lunging at the two-inch glass doors, shattering them.

“At that point, the animal circled around, realized where it had jumped in from and started to jump over,” Lewis said. “That’s when the order was given to use lethal force.”

Allowing the cat to jump back over the wall, near the popular Promenade by the beach, was not an option, Lewis said. The cat, injured, angry and able to run 40 to 50 miles per hour, would have encountered humans within seconds. Santa Monica, which houses about 90,000 residents, has a daytime population between 200,000 and 400,000.

Some questioned why a second dart wasn’t used, Lewis said, but that wasn’t possible either. A second dart would have killed the cat, he said, and anyway, it would have taken 15 minutes to take effect. The cat would have jumped over the wall by then.

The incident, from call to the cat’s death, lasted three hours. The internal investigation will focus on the shooting, the performance of the officers and whether they could have used different training, Lewis said.

The Fish and Game Department took its carcass and will perform a necropsy, conducting a chemical and DNA analysis to determine what it had eaten.

They will then cremate the mountain lion and a game warden or biologist will spread the ashes in a peaceful spot in the mountains.

"I call it the circle of life," Andrew Hughan of the Fish and Game Department told msnbc.com.

The mountain lion population is under severe stress due to habitat loss and poaching, scientists say.

For a decade, the National Park Service has been tracking mountain lions in Southern California, including the 275 square miles of the Santa Monica range, which is hemmed in by highways, urban areas, the ocean and agricultural land.

That island of habitat is large enough to support 10 to 15 mountain lions, according to Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the project. Young adult males are forced to set out to establish their own territory or reckon with a dominant male in the area, he said.

"Most young adult males we have followed in the Santa Monica mountains have ended up getting killed on a freeway or by an adult male in that territory," Sikich said.

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The park service is conducting genetic tests to determine whether the mountain lion killed on Tuesday is a part of the tiny Santa Monica population, which Sikich says is likely.

"This is regrettable," said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the nonprofit conservation group Mountain Lion Foundation. "By having this poor lion die now … that will put even more pressure on the survivability of the species down there."

Dunbar said the Sacramento-based foundation had dispatched staff to Santa Monica to investigate the animal’s death.

"Though we tried to get information from the local police they were not forthcoming," Dunbar said. "We are presently requesting a copy of (the California Fish and Game Department's) incident report."

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