Here, kitty, kitty 

The disturbing fate of a mountain lion cub

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Loewen has been featured in several news stories in Helena's Independent Record, on local TV stations and even on the National Geographic Channel. He enjoys some small celebrity because he is one of the people Helena 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 Helena's south hills some months back and another in February after it killed a couple of domestic cats west of town.

Loewen's job title doesn't convince Howser and the others that he made the right decision with this particular cub. When Howser found out about the euthanasia a few days later, she says 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."

Howser says 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 the cub or transfer it to the center's manager, Lisa Rhodin. Howser is adamant that 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 them the impression that someone was going to try to rehabilitate the cub.

Loewen denies 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," he says.

That doesn't gibe with Howser's memory. She says it hadn't even occurred to her that he might do such a thing.

Asked if he thought it was possible that meeting Howser and O'Brien outside the rehab center might have led to their mistaken impression, Loewen says he met them there because they didn't know their way around Helena and they happened to know where the center was. Told that O'Brien lives in Helena, Loewen adds that it also made sense to meet there because the pair was coming from McDonald Pass and the highway passes by the center.

Howser, who wrote a strongly worded letter to FWP about the circumstances of the cub's death, says that almost a year later, she still believes the warden let his personal feelings about mountain lions affect his professional judgment.

Loewen denies this. He doesn't want to respond to "Janie Howser's personal attacks," he says, but then speculates that she might have been angry because he "had a pretty frank discussion with her about what they had done wrong" with the cub.

By the time the cub arrived in Helena, the issue of what they should have done back at the Lubrecht Experimental Forest was moot. O'Brien and Howser weren't planning to take the cat back over McDonald Pass because it was just a few yards from the rehabilitation center's doors. Loewen wasn't either, as events showed.

Neither Howser, O'Brien, Foresta nor Maus is a wildlife biologist, but all four saw the cat for extended periods and were convinced it stood at least a chance of survival, if not a very good chance. Maus returned to the idea a few times in an interview, looking for ways to prove the cub's health. While he believed it was still too young to walk, he says, he saw it pushing itself up, wobbling on its legs, "meowing and just acting like a kitten."

None of them thought to video the cub, but Foresta took several photos while Howser was caring for it. Most show the small cat wrapped in blankets with someone cradling it. One photo shows it holding its head up as it nurses on a small bottle of formula. In a couple of other pictures, it appears to be sitting up in a box under its own power. Seeing the cub do such things firsthand caused most everyone involved to think the cat was on the mend.

"They thought wrong," Loewen says, 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."

All that was left, then, were a few less-than-ideal options: a gunshot or exhaust.

He explains that he didn't like the former because it didn't seem as humane.

"It's a very difficult position to be in," he says.

Corrective counseling

Loewen says he followed American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines when he used exhaust to kill the cub. "Several different methods are acceptable," he says, "including carbon monoxide."

It's important to remember wardens in the field can't always use the AVMA's preferred methods. However, Loewen wasn't in one of the remote areas wardens typically refer to as "the field." He was in the parking lot of the wildlife rehabilitation center. And while carbon monoxide does appear in the guidelines as one acceptable means 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: gas produced from certain chemical interactions, exhaust from idling combustion engines and commercially compressed gas in cylinders. It goes on, "The first two 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."

FWP Warden Captain Sam Shephard says he trusts Loewen's assessment of the cat's health. Asked if FWP reprimanded Loewen for any aspect of the incident, Shephard says "it didn't rise to the level of a reprimand." But he and Loewen did talk about the choice to use exhaust, Shephard says, adding that they sat down for "corrective counseling" and decided "this form of euthanasia was not the way we wanted to handle these situations." If there were another situation like the one Loewen faced in May 2011, Shephard says, 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."

Using good judgment

FWP used the death of the mountain lion to clarify unwritten policy with regard to euthanasia. But what kinds of levers, if any, does the department have to steer wildlife to the rehabilitation center when conditions permit it?

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