No one is exactly sure how a mountain lion roamed into the heart of Santa Monica on Tuesday morning, coming face to face with the janitor of an office complex not far from the city’s bustling shopping district.
But he turned out to be an unwelcome visitor -- and that generated much debate in the city.
With news choppers circling overhead, Santa Monica police managed to corner the 3-year-old lion in the courtyard of the complex. Police said they made several attempts to contain what they described as an aggressive feline using tranquilizing darts, nonlethal bullets and a fire hose.
When that failed to stop the lion from trying to escape, a police officer fatally shot him.
Authorities defended the killing, saying the lion would have posed a public threat if it had managed to get back on the street. They noted there was a preschool across the street and shoppers nearby.
“A variety of means were used to try to keep the animal back in the courtyard,” said Santa Monica Police Lt. Robert Almada.
“The animal continued to charge and attempted to flee. It was euthanized to protect the public safety.”
But in a city known for its robust civic discord and love of causes, some were quick to protest.
Bill Dyer, 78, said police are too quick to reach for their weapons when dealing with animals.
“What was the rush?” asked Dyer, a regional director for In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit animal protection organization. “They should have taken their time. This land belongs to the animals too. This is not just our land.”
Santa Monica resident Synnove Naess was visibly shaken after learning that the cat was killed in the neighborhood where she attends art class.
“Everybody is so devastated about this,” she said. “I’m just so sad. This could happen again. Are they going to shoot animals every time this happens?”
California Department of Fish and Game officials said it was highly unusual for a mountain lion to wander into a largely populated, urban area. In fact, nobody in the department could recall ever before seeing one in Santa Monica.
“There is almost no way for [the animal] to get here from there,” said Andrew Hughan, a Fish and Game spokesman, looking on a map at the distance between the Santa Monica Mountains and the shopping district.
“But this one did.”
About 6,000 mountain lions live in the state’s mountains and canyons, Hughan said. From 1972 to 2009, Fish and Game killed 10 mountain lions in Los Angeles County for reasons of public safety.
Since 2002, the National Park Service has conducted a scientific project to learn more about the habits of the mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. So far, it has monitored 22 of the wild cats living there.
The sight of the 75-pound beast that made its way to Santa Monica frightened janitor Rogelio Rodriguez. He started his predawn shift at Emeritus College by emptying the trash can in the courtyard. The rustling of the garage bag apparently startled the mountain lion.
The animal, pawing at a glass door, saw Rodriguez and turned toward him.
“I saw the cat come to where I was,” he said. “I ran into the building and called the police.”
Officers arrived shortly after 6 a.m. to find the cat cornered in the courtyard of 1227 2nd Street, an office building that houses a yoga studio, law firm and college admissions office.
Three game wardens, as well as the Santa Monica Fire Department, were called to assist. The three agencies formulated a plan to “immobilize, tranquilize and take the animal back to nature,” Hughan said.
At about 9:45 a.m., a warden fired a tranquilizing dart at the animal, which had already been confined. The cat tried to escape.
Animals can be unpredictable after they are darted, Hughan said, which is why the extra precautions were taken.
“Darts are not like in the movies or on TV,” he said. “It can take 10 minutes or more for the drugs to take effect.”
Police used pepper balls, and firefighters employed the fire hoses to try to keep the animal contained.
When it got too close to an officer, the animal was fatally shot.
Nearby, bystanders and animal advocates stood outside the yellow caution tape that roped off 2nd Street at Arizona Avenue.
Madelyn Tarfman, 70, said she was sad the lion was killed but supported the shooting. The Santa Monica resident said she feared for the young children attending preschool across the street. “We feel bad,” she said. “But when there is a choice between an animal and people, then you have to make a decision.”
Kate Mather contributed to this report.