The Cougar Fund has been reaching out to all the players in the tragic events that developed outside the Project Harmony building in Omaha, Nebraska yesterday. In case you are new to the situation, here is a little background. Nebraska is home to a very small population of resident, reproducing mountain lions. This population is centered in the Pine Ridge Region on the western side of the state. As mountain lions mature, the young will disperse from the mother’s home range as they seek to establish territory of their own. Mountain lions have quite simple needs, based on the instinct to eat, breed and find habitat that allows them to remain elusive. The way east does not provide very much opportunity to fulfill these needs so ‘passing through’ is how mountain lions usually experience the rest of Nebraska. At about 5pm on Wednesday May 6th a mountain lion was spotted in an outside area up against the Project Harmony building in Omaha. It is quite possible that the lion arrived in this spot via preferred riparian areas close to either Papillon or Hell Creeks in the vicinity. Project Harmony is a humanitarian place of refuge and healing for children traumatized by abuse. The Omaha Police Department responded to the scene. The following information comes from telephone conversations with personnel from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), the Omaha Police Department(OPD) and the Nebraska Humane Society (NHS).
The emergency response protocol of NGPC is to euthanize mountain lions found in metropolitan areas. That is it, plain and simple. The reasoning behind this is the lack of public land in Nebraska and also the fact that surrounding states have indicated their unwillingness to receive relocated animals. The protocol does not specify the method of euthanasia.
NGPC is the agency ‘in charge’ of the state’s wildlife and the OPD are in charge of ‘public safety’. When public safety is apparently threatened by the presence of a wild animal, the OPD look to the NGPC for guidance. The de facto choice in this situation is procedurally limited to euthanasia. It seems that someone in the police department was seeking a more compassionate solution because they also consulted with the Nebraska Humane Society and the Henry Doorly Zoo, which is frequently cited as the pre-eminent captive facility in the nation.
The Humane Society did respond to the scene, according to one of their workers. The police allowed them to assess the possibility for tranquilizing the lion, but they felt they were not in a position to accomplish this successfully and the order went out to kill the lion with gunfire, where it was resting.
There is no way to conceal the brutality of the killing of this animal. Although the use of shotguns is standard procedure by wildlife professionals, it seems that it resulted in a protracted death for the cougar. It has been reported by several witness that after the first shot gun blasts, the mountain lion stood up, in an apparent attempt to escape the barrage of ammunition. Would it have been possible to use the skills of a trained marksman, or wait for NGPC to arrive?
The cougar’s ultimate escape came with terror, pain and finally death.
We have been assured that there will be an investigation and a follow up report about this polarizing event. What can we expect? What would we like to see as the outcome? Can this cougar’s life and death be a catalyst for change in the attitudes that prevail about large carnivores?
Nebraska has been the site of great angst concerning the relatively recent presence of the slowly recovering mountain lion population. The predominant sentiment paints these apex predators as vicious killers from whom nobody is safe. The demand to hunt them, kill them on sight or otherwise protect people, pets and livestock from mountain lions has reached the very highest level of decision making, with reasonable management proposals being vetoed by the Governor at the end of the 2014 Unicameral Session.
NGPC itself called for a halt to the hunting season in light of the need for further study and because the incidental mortality had far exceeded their expectations. This was met by resistance in rural communities who are not willing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that safety AND mountain lions on the landscape can happen simultaneously! The actions of authorities such as NGPC and the OPD often reflect the values and demands of the communities they serve. This is most evident when the public is motivated by fear and misinformation. The video accompanying the news article attached, shows exaggerated references to public safety, when in fact the lion was in an isolated area and (as long as there were armed and trained officers to respond to any indication that the lion intended to approach people) public safety was being protected.
The directive to euthanize the Project Harmony mountain lion may have been unavoidable under current guidelines, but the method was unacceptable under any circumstances.
It is too easy to just be a ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’. The most productive commentary is about asking ‘what comes next’? Public servants know that public opinion goes with the territory and they also know that they will get a chance to analyze this event and introduce better policies because of it. The ideal result would be that the citizens of Nebraska would learn from the experience of the millions of people living on the Front Range of the Rockies, in the Santa Monica’s or in densely populated South Florida. These urban dwellers have worked through their primitive reactions to large carnivores. They take sightings in stride and they adapt their own behavior to mitigate negative encounters. As citizens learn to live safely with large carnivores on the landscape, so the authorities respect and reflect the educated and tolerant attitude of the people they are sworn to protect.
This lion died by a cruel and unacceptable method, the videos are excruciating for us to see and hear and it is almost unbearable to imagine how much this lion suffered : not because of the protocol to kill cougars in urban areas; not because of an imminent threat to the sadly, already abused children present in Project Harmony; not because the Humane Society was unable to find a trajectory for their tranquilizers; but because fear prevented the decision makers from taking the time to carefully assess the level of threat and from their decision to use unsophisticated weaponry to kill the lion.
Decision makers must find a way to integrate time, knowledge, and heightened awareness into policy if man’s broken relationship with the wild is to be healed.