Officers Pose In 'Trophy' Photo After Killing Rare Mountain Lion
The first mountain lion seen in Kentucky in 150 years had walked over 1,000 miles to get there, wildlife researchers concluded this week. But even more noteworthy than his epic journey is just how tragically short-lived his return would be.
Within hours of being spotted, the rarely seen big cat was dead.
It was last December when officers from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) were dispatched to the scene where the mountain lion had first been sighted, cowering alone in a tree. Although the frightened mountain lion was hardly an immediate threat, they chose not to wait for a tranquilizer gun so that the animal could be safely relocated.
Instead, they opted to shoot him as he tried to run away.
That grim decision to kill a creature no one had seen in Kentucky since the Civil War apparently didn't weigh heavy on the officers' minds. They actually appeared to be quite happy about their use of lethal force, even posing with the majestic animal's bloodied body, like trophy hunters.
Justification for killing the mountain lion as a matter of public safety is dubious at best. Although there had been no reports of the mountain lion endangering people or pets, KDFWR spokesperson Steven Dobey told local news station WLKY that the officers made "the right decision," adding, in jarringly oversimplified terms, "that is an animal that is put on this Earth to eat."
Truth is, attacks on humans by mountain lions are exceedingly rare, which is why many wildlife agencies in regions they inhabit usually let them be. But regardless of the argument for killing the big cat, the pleasure the officers seemed to feel doing it was enough to spark outrage online.
"If you serve to protect the Wildlife, you don't take 'selfies' with your kill," Kentucky native Timothy Kulig wrote on Facebook. "The problem becomes when you put 'hunters' who enjoy killing, in charge of your wildlife. There is a conflict of interest there. These are the smiles of hunters, not the concern look of wildlife professionals."
Another commenter, Tonya Taylor, was equally condemning:
"I don't appreciate the trophy-pose I see here. This was not a hunting trip, or at least it shouldn't have been."
The latter comment triggered a reaction from KDFWR, who countered her remarks by parsing a difference between two essentially synonymous words for what the photo represents:
"Tonya Taylor, this was not a 'trophy' pose. Had this been an unusual live animal that was captured, the officers would no doubt have wanted a memento of their experiences."
As upsetting as the officers' photo is - as a "memento" or otherwise - it's hardly a departure from the types of content shared publicly by the agency. In fact, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources' official Facebook page is littered with dozens of photos of hunters, many of them children, similarly posed with the bodies of animals they killed for fun.
Hunting, it should be noted, is regulated by the department, so one might expect to encounter such images there. But in a professional context, the photo of the happy on-duty officers seems counter to their sober mission statement to "[serve] as a steward of Kentucky's fish and wildlife resources and their habitats."
Adding to the tragedy of the mountain lion's arguably unnecessary death, of course, was the stunning fact that it was there in the first place. Indeed, the sighting could have been viewed as a welcome sign that natural order was being restored, had things gone differently.
Despite the fact that mountain lions have been spotted recently in neighboring states, KDFWR officials nevertheless aired their suspicions that someone had illegally transported the animal into Kentucky to keep as an exotic pet - suggesting that the animal shouldn't have been there in the first place.
"In our professional opinion, the animal was a wild, dispersing male from the Black Hills, South Dakota."
There's no telling when another mountain lion might make that long trek to reclaim his territory lost so long ago, or if things will be any different for him when he arrives. Although the recovery of native species in regions where they had been eliminated is generally considered beneficial, helping to restore an ecosystem's fragile balance - the quickness of which people have turned to killing can stop this process in its tracks.
Sadly, this mountain lion isn't the only victim of what might be part of a troubling trend to shoot first and ask questions later.
In 2013, a gray wolf also made history by becoming the first to wander back into Kentucky 150 years after it was wiped out in the state. That animal, confused initially for a coyote, was shot on sight.