Mountain lion captured outside downtown Santa Rosa mall

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A mountain lion captured outside Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall Monday morning likely wandered into downtown from a nearby creek, wildlife officials said.

The animal was spotted before dawn walking along B Street near the mall entrance. Its urban adventure, which unfolded in front of dozens of downtown workers blocked from getting to their jobs, lasted more than five hours, before the mountain lion was hit with tranquilizer darts and loaded into a carrier to later be released in a rural area north of town.

“I didn’t expect to be late to work due to a mountain lion,” said Kharman Aidun, who waited with coworkers along B Street for the cat to be captured.

The mountain lion likely came from the nearby Santa Rosa Creek, officials said. Scared, it hunkered down for hours in bushes in a raised planter box near the eastside doors to Macy’s department store.

“When I got the call early this morning that it was at the mall I was shocked because I know Santa Rosa and that was smack in the middle of everything,” said Greg Martinelli, state wildlife lands program manager. “But then the reality set in that we had to act fast and figure out how to best handle this lion situation.”

While it’s not unusual for mountain lions to show up in rural neighborhoods and some urban areas, having one at a shopping mall is.

“It’s not common, going into a mall and things like that,” said Quinton Martins, a big cat expert who works on a local conservation program tracking area mountain lions.

The mall’s proximity to the creek, which runs through downtown and connects to rural west Santa Rosa, made it a likely path.

Being so young, the mountain lion wasn’t a real danger to the public, Martins said. But there could have been issues with people not knowing how to react. “It could have led to a complicated situation,” he said.

Police at about 4:20 a.m. received a 911 call about the mountain lion walking toward the mall. An officer spotted it a few minutes later at the mall’s main entrance, and within minutes a message went out to state officers to help catch it.

As the cat moved around the mall’s front doors, an officer snapped photos, showing it sitting near the iconic hand statue, which many visitors use as a photo prop. Officers kept their distance and watched, awaiting state officers who were equipped to deal with it.

The ordeal ended about 10 a.m. — just as many mall stores were slated to open.

California Fish and Wildlife officers tried four times to hit the juvenile mountain lion with darts, missing twice. The fourth dart fired did the job and the male animal, believed to be just under a year old and about 40 pounds, fell asleep enough to be picked up and put into the carrier.

It got a quick medical evaluation, one ear was tagged, and DNA was taken. By early afternoon it was released to a suitable rural habit north of Santa Rosa, Martinelli said.

“Getting it contained was our main goal before Fish and Wildlife arrived because this is not a person, we cannot just go up and put handcuffs on it,” Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Snetsinger said. “The animal was obviously scared, but it is still unpredictable so we could not do anything rash or too fast.”

“It’s unusual. We haven’t had a wild animal such as a mountain lion before (in downtown),” said Snetsinger as he stood along B Street with officers and people who worked nearby. “This guy is really out of his element.”

The last time Santa Rosa had an animal loose downtown that required significant police action was in July 2007, when a 200‑pound ram escaped from a farm. Officers chased the ram throughout the city, eventually cornering it in downtown and using a stun gun to capture it.

“With the ram we used a Taser. Animal control (officers) had ropes,” Snetsinger said. “What do you do with a mountain lion?”

Officers knew if the mountain lion threatened anyone they’d have to shoot it. “We certainly didn’t want to do that,” Snetsinger said.

By about 5:45 a.m. the mountain lion had settled into the planter, and officers closed off B Street to traffic and pedestrians. State officers arrived about 6:30 a.m. and worked on a plan to tranquilize the animal.

As the workday approached, more people began arriving in downtown to get to their businesses, only to be turned back. Officers also turned away two women with yoga mats headed for a class.

“Nothing much surprises me downtown,” Tiffany Parker said as she waited to get to work near the mall.

The lion stayed in the planter box for about three hours. It kept moving around, even after it was hit with the first tranquilizer dart. An attempt to hit it with a second dart failed, and the animal soon sprang up — in view of its audience — and dashed south down the outer mall wall a short distance before finding a new hiding spot. It ran back and forth multiple times before an officer successfully hit it with another tranquilizer dart.

As news spread of the animal’s plight more people stopped by to see.

“It is true, a mountain lion?” a man who rode up on a bicycle asked Snetsinger.

“It is,” Snetsinger answered.

“A mountain lion!” the rider exclaimed as he pedaled off.

It was an odd way to start the work week. One man figured it was an excuse his boss wouldn’t buy.

“‘So there was a mountain lion and I couldn’t get to work today,’” said Matt Defer, trying out the line as he stood on the sidewalk.

Others on the sidewalk said they weren’t nervous, but instead surprised and worried for the animal.

“I’m curious where it came from,” Parker said. “Maybe we pushed him out of somewhere.”

Martins warned anyone who crosses paths with a mountain lion not to turn and run. Instead, they should try to keep their distance, look larger, shout and, if possible, pick up an object such as a stick and aggressively wave it.

Martinelli said it was the first time state Fish and Wildlife officers were called to downtown Santa Rosa for a mountain lion, but they have gone to one in a Santa Clara parking garage and another in urban Santa Cruz.

“In this case, everybody did the right thing. It was the best outcome for the animal,” Martinelli said. “We got it back into its natural habitat.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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