A man known as the "cat man" is denying accusations that he tried to sell bear cubs after shooting their mother. KCRA-TV's Tom DuHain reports.
California Department of Fish and Game wardens are investigating a man who was seen Wednesday with two black bear cubs in a cage outside of a North San Juan, Calif., gas station, allegedly trying to sell them after he shot the cubs' mother.
Drivers who passed by the Sierra Super Stop, about 75 miles northeast of Sacramento, reported the man to state officials. The man, identified as Chris Puett, denied allegations he was asking for money for the cubs, insisting he only wanted to find them a good home after he shot their mother on his property days before, according to local reports.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in the state of California,” Patrick Foy, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game, told the Los Angeles Times.
Puett said the mother bear stole dog food from outside of his trailer home in rural Nevada County on four consecutive nights.
“She comes in to get that bag, and I yell at her and instead of leaving like she had done every time in the past, she’s coming right at me,” Puett told NBC affiliate KCRA in Sacramento, Calif., adding the bear was within feet of him before she made a move toward him. “We were only 20 feet away [from each other] when it started.”
Puett, who KCRA reported is known locally as "The Cat Man" because he keeps dozens of animals, said the mother bear charged him, so he shot her with his shotgun. She then left his property, injured, Puett said, and he assumed she eventually died.
But she had left her cubs nearby, he said.
“He told us he had shot the mother bear in self-defense, and the mother bear ran off, leaving the cubs behind,” Foy said. “He apparently kept the cubs for a couple of days, then made his decision.”
Puett said it took 18 hours to catch the cubs, that he called Yogi and BooBoo, after they climbed up a tree.
“I did not do this to kill animals,” Puett said. “I did this to save my life. My life is saved. Theirs is still going. I don’t want the babies dead.”
Investigators are now trying to track down the body of the mother bear to confirm she died. Puett had no signs of injury indicating an attack.
Sylvia Dolson, executive director of the Get Smart Bear Society in British Columbia - an organization that helps bears and people coexist peacefully - said there's a strong likelihood that the mother abandoned her cubs to wander away and die, but the odds the bear attacked Puett aren't as high.
"Based on historical statistics, black bear mothers are not known for their fierce protectiveness of their cubs," Dolson told msnbc.com. "They don't attack people to defend them but instead will act in a matter that intimidates people."
More importantly, Dolson said, this problem was entirely avoidable.
"Remove the attractant removes the problem," she said. "It's that easy. If [Puett] had gotten rid of the food, after a while, a black bear would stop wasting its time and stay away."
Cubs taken in by officials
It’s a felony in California to own or sell wild animals, and Foy said a district attorney’s office could be asked to determine whether this was such a case. Other citations are also possible. Black bears are only classified as endangered in Mexico.
Several people at the gas station have backed up Puett’s story, saying he was not trying to sell the cubs. So far authorities have not charged, arrested or cited him, according to KCRA.
Sandra Cleva, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement told msnbc.com that this was not a federal enforcement issue, unless the bears were sold or transported across state lines.
Cleva also underscored the danger of Puett’s intentions.
“Wild animals belong in the wild or -- if they are injured or orphaned -- with those who are qualified and legally authorized to care for them," Cleva said. "People should not attempt to raise or possess or care for them."
The cubs – a male and female, weighing 13 and 11 pounds – were taken into custody by a Nevada County deputy and Fish and Game officials, and are now being treated at a facility in Rancho Cordova.
Experts estimate the cubs to be four to six months old, too young to be released into the wild, so officials will soon transport them to a Lake Tahoe rehab center for the summer and fall. They will be tagged and released next winter into a makeshift den where Game and Park officials hope they will hibernate.
A similar process has been done with dozens bear cubs found around the state, and only three cubs, according to officials, have not survived the process.
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