Friday evening, December 11, a young mountain lion was hanging around Circle Bar B Ranch in Goleta (Santa Barbara County, California). Reluctant to leave, and with reports of a domestic cat killed previously in the area, residents believed the lion might be sick or injured.
Local wildlife organization Animal Rescue Team (ART) was called to the scene. Because lions are a specially protected mammal in California, there are strict restrictions on who can handle them. An amendment to that law in 2013 now allows for qualified individuals and organizations to assist the California Department of Fish and Wildlife with mountain lion rescue and rehabilitation. But guidelines are still in the works, and as a result ART does not currently have a permit to independently rescue or rehabilitate lions.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers arrived on scene and reportedly, "attempted to haze the animal back into open space. The cat refused to move so it was immobilized and taken to a wildlife veterinarian for evaluation. The vet assessed the condition of the animal and determined it could be released by staff."
The Department also noted, "Human intervention with wildlife should always be a last resort. Darting and examining a wild animal is very stressful and can often do more harm than good. CDFW always prefers to let animals return to the wild on their own. In this case, it was the only option because the lion was close to a residence and refused to move."
While some are praising the relocation of this 60 pound female lion as a great success, others are frustrated the animal did not receive additional medical care. If she was in fact two years old as estimated, this cat was nearly 30 pounds underweight.
One wildlife expert responded that releasing the animal so soon was the wrong decision, indicating the scraggly face of the lion may be a sign of mange from rodenticide exposure. This lead to the question of whether the Department released her so she could die in the wild rather than going through the trouble of finding a facility for rehabilitation.
In April 2014, the iconic Hollywood lion, P-22, wasn't look so great in photos captured by a trail camera. Local mountain lion researchers captured him and treated the mange and anticoagulants found in his blood stream. This did not require placing the cat in captivity.
While it has not been revealed what, if any, treatments were given to the Goleta lion while in the custody of CDFW and veterinarians, it's clear a larger debate on rehab policies is on the forefront.
Following this incident, MLF received multiple inquiries from the public about the welfare of the lion and CDFW's handling of the situation.
We contacted the department for more information and learned CDFW is currently in the process of creating a mountain lion rehabilitation plan. They are working with experts across the nation to ensure the program will be thorough and contain best practices, facility locations, release sites, and GPS monitoring of released individuals.
Mountain lion rehabilitation is rare, and most states won't even consider attempting it because of the costs and potential liability issues. By drafting this plan, California is taking a huge step forward.
A Santa Barbara County CDFW Lieutenant also shared some information about what happened to the Goleta lion after being tranquilized.
The cat, "was transported to the California Wildlife Care Center in Calabasas where it was examined. It was treated for mange and given water and food. On Sunday it was transported back and released in the Santa Ynez Mountain range."
While more time at a rehab center may have allowed the lion to put on weight and regain her strength, being in captivity is stressful for wild animals. Finding the right balance is just one of many challenges faced daily by dedicated wildlife rehabilitators.