HALF MOON BAY -- If game wardens had captured, not killed, two mountain lion cubs that were found recently hiding in a backyard on the edge of downtown, Joe Maynard would gladly have taken them.
"We would have flown up there the next day and picked them up," said Maynard, who runs the Feline Conservation Center, a facility in the desert southeast of Bakersfield that breeds, rehabilitates and displays exotic cats.
And if the wardens had needed help trapping the 25- to 30-pound cubs, Maynard could have done that too -- no sweat.
"I would have walked up to them and grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and put them in a crate," Maynard said. "If we couldn't reach them by hand, we would have just used a net or a catch pole around the neck."
Instead the wardens shot the cats to death the night of Dec. 1 as they cowered underneath a porch. Attempting to sedate the animals would have been too risky, California Department of Fish and Game officials later said, because the roughly 9-month-old cubs could have escaped, posing a threat to public safety.
The wardens' decision, made in consultation with a supervisor, generated a storm of criticism from local residents and wildlife organizations, who say the cats could have been spared and either released or placed in a zoo.
Now the California-based Mountain Lion Foundation -- which has criticized Fish and Game for past killings of cougars, including one earlier this year in Santa Monica
The nonprofit is pushing for the agency to implement several changes, including:
"We have been advocating for some time for the department to give themselves a nonlethal option," said Tim Dunbar, president of the foundation, "and to quit using their public safety authority to kill lions when they don't need to."
So far the department has given no indication that it will reconsider its protocols. Several Fish and Game officials said last week that public safety must trump the welfare of animals.
The proposition that banned mountain lion hunting in 1990 gives Fish and Game wardens the authority to kill any mountain lion that is deemed an imminent threat to public safety.
That law is incorporated into Fish and Game guidelines for evaluating threats posed by wildlife, but critics say the protocols lean too much toward killing lions rather than tranquilizing or trapping them. And the department does not rehabilitate or relocate those lions that are captured.
Marc Kenyon, Fish and Game's mountain lion coordinator, said the agency prefers to catch wayward lions and then immediately release them where they came from, but that isn't always possible. Any cougar that is considered a public safety threat is killed. Injured lions are sometimes put down. There are two options, he said, for orphaned cubs that are not considered threats but are too young to survive on their own: euthanasia or life in a zoo or sanctuary.
"Those facilities aren't always knocking down our doors," Kenyon said. "There aren't a plethora of places that want or need one."
But Maynard, whose conservation center distributes cats to zoos worldwide, said there are lots of sanctuaries that will take them. Last year, for instance, his team flew to Oregon to pick up a pair of orphaned cubs and found a home for them at the Orange County Zoo. The Mountain Lion Foundation claims the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has eight openings for cougar kittens.
Maynard said he has told Fish and Game on several occasions, including in a 2009 letter to then-Deputy Director Sonke Mastrup, that his organization will take in any orphaned cubs and pay for all the expenses of housing and treating them. He said he hasn't gotten a response.
"There's no reason for the killing," Maynard said, "when we can take them, and have taken them, and there are good zoos that want them."
The Mountain Lion Foundation wants Fish and Game to go even further. The two cubs should have been captured and treated, then evaluated for eventual release, Dunbar said, with outside groups such as the foundation paying for the rehabilitation.
"They would have been ideal candidates to put radio collars on, put back into the wild, and see if they're able to survive and stay away from humans on their own," Dunbar said.
But holding lions for treatment habituates them to people, according to Fish and Game's Marc Kenyon, making them dangerous to release. Wildlife groups counter that aversion therapy can restore to captive lions a healthy fear of humans.
And while some mountain lion advocates say the animals do not belong in zoos, Maynard argues life in captivity is better than no life at all.
"Any option is better than killing it," he said.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.