Just before Memorial Day weekend 2011, a group of U.S. Forest Service employees was finishing a training session in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest outside Missoula when some of them found a brush-covered depression in the ground and, in it, a tiny mountain-lion cub.
It was one of those moments Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologists spend a lot of energy addressing. Someone finds a cute baby animal. It’s alone and seems to have been abandoned. So the people are faced with a dilemma: should they leave it where it is or intervene? Biologists at every level say the best thing to do is leave the little animal where it is, because, whether or not you see her, the mother is probably nearby. It can seem counter-intuitive to caring people, but intervention can diminish the animal’s chances for survival.
According to Lubrecht’s director, Frank Maus, when the group found the little cat, they followed this advice and left it where it was.
However, they didn’t entirely leave the area. They stuck around to set up a motion-sensor camera to monitor what happened. The mother didn’t return that night. The next morning, the cub was getting more lethargic. Its mother didn’t return that night either. On the third morning, Maus went to check on the cat and it was no longer moving.
If things had ended there, those involved would probably have walked away feeling powerless and sad. But they had already interfered with nature and felt responsible, so Maus approached the cat to check for signs of life.
“It was stiff, almost like rigor mortis,” Maus said. “But when I touched it, it raised its head. So we rolled it up in a fleece jacket and brought it down to the truck and put it by the heater and warmed it up a bit.”
Janie Howser, who was Lubrecht’s facilities manager at the time and another of those involved, kept several pets, so the group looked to her as de facto caregiver. She lived in the area and took the cub, wrapped it in a blanket, fed it some formula made for domestic kittens, gave it subcutaneous fluids. A photographer who had also kept animals much of her life, Mae Foresta, said the cub wasn’t walking but was “mobile and alert.”
“It had a nice plump belly and responded to (warmth),” she said.
Howser at one point returned to the center to show people how well the cat was recovering.
“I was amazed,” said Maus. “Within a few hours, this little guy had come around.”
This posed a new problem: what does one do with a mountain lion cub? They knew it was under Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ jurisdiction and they knew the department operated a wildlife-rehabilitation center in Helena, so they tried to reach someone at the center, but had the wrong phone number and couldn’t get through. They kept making calls and eventually contacted a game warden for the
Helena area, Dave Loewen, who arranged to meet them at the rehab center.
A U.S. Forest Service logging engineer named Stephen (Obie) O’Brien was at Lubrecht, but he lived in Helena. Since the session was now over and he was about to make the return drive anyway, he offered to transport the cub. Howser rode along to help with the cat.
Howser said it was a relief to know it would soon be with people who could help if its health deteriorated, but she was certain it was active and eating formula during the drive.
“The little bugger wasn’t in great shape, but it was in the box and seemed to be yowling, making noises and that,” O’Brien said.
Once in Helena, they met Loewen in the parking lot outside the rehab center, handed over the mountain lion, then drove away under the impression the warden was going to try to rehabilitate the cub or transfer it to someone who might.
But Loewen didn’t contact anyone at the rehab center. Wardens sometimes consult with biologists or vets if they aren’t certain about the best course of action, but he said in a recent interview that he didn’t have to talk to anyone else in this case because it was obvious to him that, despite what Maus, O’Brien, Foresta and Howser believed, the cub was dying.
So he euthanized it with exhaust at the tailpipe of his FWP truck.
The incident last May began with a well-intentioned decision to interfere with nature and escalated to the point where a group of state and federal employees found their evaluations of a mountain-lion cub challenged by a warden who looked at the same cat and saw a starkly different set of options. The incident also highlights the public’s deep emotional investment with Montana’s wildlife and the ways FWP policy navigates fraught waters.
State vet Jennifer Ramsey said wardens receive training in which they learn how to quickly and humanely euthanize wild animals and that she urges field staff to follow the American Veterinary Medical Association euthanasia guidelines when conditions permit. But, she added, conditions in the field are not always optimal, so wardens have latitude to make decisions based on the situation at hand. For instance, though an overdose of barbiturates might be a particularly humane means of euthanasia, a warden who comes across a severely injured bear in the woods probably doesn’t have a syringe or the ability to safely inject a wounded bear.
Since so much depends on wardens’ decision-making process in the field, Ramsey said, “Hopefully they use good judgment.”
Officer Loewen has been featured in several news stories in the Independent Record, on local TV stations and even on the National Geographic Channel. A warden for the region around Helena, he enjoys some small celebrity because he is one of the people city and county officials call when potentially dangerous animals like lions or bears turn up on private property or in the middle of the city. Loewen shot and killed a mountain lion on a deck in the south hills some months back and another in February after it killed a couple domestic cats west of Helena.
But Loewen’s job title doesn’t convince Howser and the others that he made the right judgment with this particular cub.
When she found out about the euthanasia a few days later, she was bewildered.
“If I felt it was on death’s door, I wouldn’t have bothered taking it over there. I would have just dealt with it until death, but I thought it had a good chance,” she said.
According to Howser, she and O’Brien only agreed to meet Loewen in the rehab center’s parking lot because they believed he was going to try to rehabilitate it or transfer it to the center’s manager, Lisa Rhodin.
Furthermore, Howser is adamant Loewen lied to her, claiming the warden explicitly stated he was going to make sure the cub was rehabilitated. O’Brien didn’t go so far as to say Loewen lied, but he did say the warden gave the impression someone was going to try to rehabilitate the cat.
Loewen denied lying or giving them false impressions.
“I think at one point I told them I would have to take a look at the cat and that it probably would have to be euthanized,” Loewen said.
Howser said that doesn’t gibe with her memory because she had no idea he was going to do this when they left.
When asked if he thought it was possible that meeting them outside the rehab center might have led to their mistaken impression, Loewen said they met in that location because the others didn’t know their way around Helena but knew where the center was. When told that O’Brien lived in Helena, Loewen said it also made sense to meet there because they were coming from McDonald Pass and the highway passes by the center on Broadwater Ave.
He said a couple of times that he didn’t want to respond to what he called “Janie Howser’s personal attacks,” but noted another reason she might have been upset.
“I had a pretty frank discussion with her about what they had done wrong,” he said.
By the time the cub arrived in Helena, the issue of what they should have done back at the Lubrecht forest was moot. They weren’t planning to take the cat back where they found it because they thought it was going to be rehabilitated. And Loewen wasn’t going to return it because he didn’t believe it had a chance of recovery.
Howser, O’Brien, Foresta and Maus are not wildlife biologists, but all four saw the cat for extended periods of time and were convinced it at least stood a chance of survival. Maus believed it was still too young to walk, but claimed to have seen it pushing itself up and wobbling on its legs.
“It was up and meowing and just acting like a kitten,” he said.
Howser and Foresta provided several photos of the cat. Most featured it wrapped in blankets, with human arms holding it. But one photo did show it holding its own head up a bit as it nursed on a small bottle of formula and, in another, it seemed to be sitting up in a box under its own power. Such things caused most everyone involved to think the cat was on the mend.
“They thought wrong,” Loewen said, citing his biology degree and 12 years of experience as a game warden.
“It was weak. It was not moving around. It was lethargic … when I became involved, the animal obviously couldn’t survive,” he said.
All parties seemed to agree the best possible scenario would have been if none of this had ever happened, but it was too late for that. All that was left were a few less-than-ideal options. They were just outside the rehab center’s doors and, since Howser and O’Brien felt the cat was getting better, they saw rehabilitation as the obvious choice. Loewen didn’t think the cat had a chance, so he saw a very different set of options: a gunshot or exhaust.
He explained that he didn’t like the former because it didn’t seem as humane.
“It’s a very difficult position to be in,” Loewen said. “It’s not anything I enjoyed.”
As for using exhaust, Loewen said he followed AVMA guidelines.
“Several different methods are acceptable, including carbon monoxide,” he said.
It is important to remember that wardens in the field don’t typically have the luxury of using the AVMA’s preferred methods. However, while carbon monoxide does appear in the guidelines as one acceptable tool of euthanasia, the specific method Loewen used is explicitly discouraged.
The relevant passage from the guidelines lists three common sources of the gas that people have used for euthanasia in the past: gas produced from certain chemical interactions, exhaust from idling combustion engines and commercially compressed gas in cylinders. It goes on to read, “The first 2 techniques are associated with problems such as production of other gases, achieving inadequate concentration of carbon monoxide … therefore, the only acceptable source is compressed CO in cylinders.”
Warden Captain Sam Shephard said in a telephone interview that he trusted Loewen’s assessment of the cat’s health.
But when asked if Loewen had been reprimanded for anything related to the incident, Shephard said no, or, more specifically, that “it didn’t rise to the level of a reprimand.”
But they did talk about the choice to use exhaust.
Shephard explained that FWP enforcement is always looking at policies and making sure they are up to date. Here, he said, they sat down for “corrective counseling” and decided “this form of euthanasia was not the way we wanted to handle these situations.”
Given another situation like the one Loewen faced in May, Shephard said they decided, “We would contact our (state) vet and if our vet is not available then we will take it to a local vet to have it put down.”
At one point during the interview with Loewen, he echoed Shephard’s statement: “I could have maybe communicated with a local vet to see if there was a better way to euthanize the animal, but the end result was the end result and there was no way around it.”
The chain of command used this incident as a means of clarifying unwritten policy with regard to euthanasia practices. But what kinds of levers has the enforcement department installed to steer candidate wildlife toward the rehabilitation center in those rare moments when conditions do permit?
Communications director Ron Aasheim offered the Helena Vigilante a copy of FWP’s “Policy on Intake, Rehabilitation, Holding and Disposition of Wildlife.”
The policy, which is dated January 2010, lists mountain-lion cubs up to six months old as being candidates for rehabilitation and permanent placement. This means the center can—and could at the time—accept injured or orphaned mountain lion cubs, but it also indicates that manager Rhodin must try to place them in zoos or educational facilities rather than release them in the wild. (Mountain lions would require long internments before they were mature enough to fend for themselves, so biologists generally agree the large cats would become overly comfortable with humans during that time.)
During the interview, when asked how his own department’s policies interact with those of the rehab center, Loewen explained that wardens in the state’s seven enforcement regions don’t have rigid written policies for what to do with every kind of wild animal in every kind of situation, precisely because every situation is different.
“We are sort of decentralized,” he said.
When asked how such unofficial warden policies might overlap with the rehab center’s intake policy, he said, “As far as trying to connect (regional policy) with the center there’s no connection there … you might get seven different interpretations.”
He explained the reason using an example: a warden who finds an injured black bear a short distance from Helena might be able to make a quick trip to the rehab center, but to drive from Kalispell with a similarly injured bear might be unrealistic or cause undue harm.
But what are the department’s baseline positions?
Assistant Chief of Wardens Mike Korn said there is no separate written policy that enforcement officers follow when it comes to whether or not to take animals to the rehab center.
“We try to operate off the rehab center’s policy,” he said, “but we rely on our officers’ judgment and experience.”
The general-policy section of the intake document, among other things, authorizes humane dispatch of animals “with little chance of recovery” and outlines the official position on what FWP officers should do if someone presents them with a wild animal “with injuries that are not life threatening and or/does not require treatment.”
The latter passage explains a few conditions under which an animal in such a situation should be returned immediately to the wild. Two relevant conditions are that “the animal is not injured in any way and appears in good health” and that it “has been out of its natural environment for less than twelve hours.”
However, there is no explicit statement about what should happen if an animal fails, in a warden’s judgment, to pass such tests. There is the line earlier in the document authorizing euthanasia if necessary. Other than that, after the list of tests, there is only a paragraph break, followed by the subheading for Montana Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Here, among other things, one finds a list of animals that cannot be accepted under any circumstances; another for those that can be accepted for rehabilitation and release in the wild; and yet another for animals (among them, mountain-lion cubs under six months) that can be accepted for rehabilitation and permanent placement in a zoo.
If indeed this is the only policy document on the subject, there is no explicit statement saying FWP personnel should—or even could—attempt to take candidate animals there in those instances when field conditions permit. There is only the inference created by a paragraph break and a new subheading for the rehab center, as if drafters assumed the very mention of a rehab center made such an explicit statement unnecessary.
Such an assumption would make state vet Ramsey’s earlier statement—“hopefully they use good judgment”—ring that much truer.
Almost a year has passed since some well-intentioned people found a mountain-lion cub in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest. In that time, Montana’s wardens have cited scofflaws and poachers. They’ve helped injured animals and they’ve been in situations where they had to make snap judgments about whether to put some of those animals down. This bears special mention because almost every FWP employee interviewed said something to the effect that this one little cat, big as it may have become in the eyes of those involved, was one piece of a much larger picture.
Back in Helena, Wildlife rehab center manager Rhodin had a busy year, too. In the past few months, she has placed six orphaned mountain-lion cubs in zoos in New York, Mississippi and Idaho.
That they were orphaned might not be a pleasant thing to think about. And any question about whether people should be happy about wild cats living out their lives in zoos is a topic for another discussion.
But FWP wardens transported all six cubs to the rehab center.