A year ago two tiny mountain lion kittens exposed a gaping hole in mountain lion protection policies. California, known for setting the standard in lion protection, still has much work to do before lions will truly be “specially protected.” California’s ban on recreational hunting was only a first step. Remaining on the “to-do” list: clarifying policies and facilitating communication between the state Department of Fish & Game, wildlife rescue groups, and the public. Two young kittens experienced the shortcomings firsthand.
Agency Put to the Test
The California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG) is the state agency responsible for managing wildlife and protecting mountain lions in California. Unfortunately, that protection was put to the test on April 3, 2009, when two malnourished orphaned cougar cubs wandered into the community of Solvang.
The cubs had been seen on a golf course and in town without their mother for over a week and appeared to be scavenging for food from a dumpster. Only three-months-old, the cats were too young to survive on their own and members of the community felt it was time someone stepped in to help. When CDFG failed to respond, on the ground and ready to help was Animal Rescue Team executive director Julia Di Sieno with her volunteers. Although still in the process of obtaining permit approval to hold mountain lions, Julia’s staff were well trained and one of the few wildlife rescue facilities recognized by the state. They quickly captured and transported the two spotted kittens to the ART facility near Santa Barbara in their wildlife ambulance and a veterinarian began medical treatment.
This story had a relatively happy ending when a local group stepped up to help CDFG by rescuing the two orphaned lions. But the saga is far from over. Due to the fact that Julia’s team technically broke the law by handling, transporting, and caring for two mountain lions (why is this illegal?), local CDFG officers – agents simply doing their job – showed up and confiscated the kittens. Julia later received notice that the Department intended to press charges against her and could choose to revoke her facility’s license.
Few local areas are fortunate to have a group that is legally permitted to rescue and hold mountain lions. Even when such rescues are made, lions are very rarely returned to the wild. Most orphans are either held in captivity for the remainder of their lives, or killed outright.
The Solvang kittens faced a rocky future. They endured a bumpy ride in the back of a CDFG pickup truck, spent the night crammed together in a dog crate at a pet hospital, were transported to yet another facility, examined by a second round of vets. Ultimately the pair were split up well over a year before they would have separated naturally in the wild.
“How many more ballot measures and mistreated kittens will it take before state agencies get the message?
Life in Captivity
They survive in zoos on opposite sides of the country. The kitten sent to the east coast was subjected to additional trauma by an airport worker who paraded the cat around for his buddies. The second kitten eventually found a home at the Folsom Zoo located just outside of Sacramento, California. Although both cats are wary of people, and rightly so, zoo staff remain hopeful they will eventually settle down and begin to trust their caretakers. As for Julia and the Animal Rescue Team, an outpour of public support and a meeting with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney resulted in charges not being filed against her. CDFG continues to monitor her facility closely.
SOLVANG LION CUB AFTER CAPTURE
.This was an appalling outcome for a situation where a rescue team was only trying to help their community and native wildlife. Every state entrusts the welfare of their wild animals to the state game agency. In California, residents have expressed their concerns twice through ballot measures stating that mountain lions are special and should be treated with extra care. Yet, twenty years later, policies remain unwritten, and CDFG officials seem unwilling to work with the many qualified groups, such as the Mountain Lion Foundation, which are eager to help. In the Solvang case, CDFG proved that they are still more concerned with maintaining power than in doing what is right for the State’s mountain lions. How many more ballot measures and mistreated kittens will it take before they get the message?
California’s Lion Protection Law
In 1990, California voters passed Proposition 117 which, aside from spending money on habitat protection, banned the trophy hunting of mountain lions and labeled them a “specially protected mammal.” Residents assumed this would give mountain lions affluent protection and humane treatment in the state, especially by the California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG) – the agency entrusted to manage wildlife. Unfortunately, there are no other animals in the specially protected mammal category, and CDFG never wrote any type of official manual for how mountain lions should be managed to uphold this unique title. Without clearly written policies, confusion, debate and even some very poor decisions have occurred.
“It is unlawful to take, injure, possess, transport, import, or sell any mountain lion or any part or product thereof,” and goes on to point out that items from before Proposition 117’s enactment are still legal to keep as long as “the mountain lion, part or product thereof, was in the person’s possession on June 6, 1990. …endquote
CDFG Code 4800, Division 4, Part 3, Chapter 10
The California Department of Fish and Game is primarily concerned with ensuring the public’s safety. As a result, Proposition 117 was written so that lions posing a threat to people, pets, or livestock could still be killed. The law was also written to prevent poaching and any illegal sale of living lions or of mountain lion carcasses.
In spite of repeated outcries for protection, these are the only statutes in place to protect mountain lions. Somehow, the laws have been interpreted to work against lions and to prevent even certified animal rescue groups from saving injured mountain lions and orphaned kittens.
MORE ABOUT JULIA DI SIENO
Julia J. Di Sieno is the Executive Director of Animal Rescue Team, Inc., based in Solvang, California. Ms. Di Sieno worked with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Network for twenty years before moving to the Santa Ynez Valley with the vision to open an animal rescue center there. In 2007, Ms. Di Sieno obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for Animal Rescue Team and her scope broadened.
With the additional success of obtaining permits from the California Department of Fish and Game, that vision has expanded significantly and now the Animal Rescue Team rescues injured, abused, and orphaned wild and domestic animals from the entire Tri-Counties area of the Central Coast of California. Over the years, Ms. Di Sieno and her team have rescued and rehabilitated thousands of wild and domestic animals.
MORE ABOUT ANIMAL RESCUE TEAM, INC.
Animal Rescue Team is the only organization between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo permitted by the California Department of Fish and Game to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife. Animal Rescue Team was incorporated in June of 2007. Located in the Santa Ynez Valley, A.R.T. focuses on large mammal rescue, although raptors, birds and reptiles are never turned away. Domestic animals are also occasionally fostered until a loving forever home can be found.
During the Jesusita Fire A.R.T. rescued over 200 animals, wild and domestic, working with police and fire officials to get the animals the help they needed. Refugees from the Jesusita Fire continue to recover at the A.R.T. facility from severe burns and other fire related injuries. Whether the call comes from a resident or one of the many public agencies with which A.R.T. works closely in Santa Barbara County, A.R.T. is available to respond 24/7 to an injured, orphaned, or displaced wild animal.
Animal Rescue Team is the only animal rescue facility equipped with an animal ambulance on the Central Coast. This allows them to better serve the animals and the community in times of disaster, such as the recent Tea and Jesusita fires.
In December of 2008, Animal Rescue Team was chosen as a recipient of the Santa Barbara News Press Holiday Fund, which allowed for the construction of eight large mammal enclosures. It is only through charitable donations and the generosity of volunteers that A.R.T. will continue to serve the animals and residents of the community. The generosity of Santa Barbara residents and businesses is key to A.R.T.’s continued success and will better allow A.R.T. to expand to accommodate the growing needs of abandoned or injured wildlife.