Tracking Godzilla

LA Weekly – September 2005

Under a steady downpour, one day before a 356-pound tiger is fatally shot near the Reagan Library, Lt. Chris Long, an exhausted 25-year vet of the California Department of Fish & Game, leads me down a muddy trail on Day Creek Ranch in Thousand Oaks. We stop at a black nursery bucket. He lifts it and unveils the first discovered track. It’s huge. “This was no mountain lion,” says Long.  We walk on with our eyes peeled, and he points down to a thin veil of rainwater streaming over a series of enormous pawprints; the cat’s stride is 51 inches long.

Suddenly in the chaparral above we see a flash of gold and then two camouflaged trackers on ATVs, armed with tranquilizer guns and rifles, hauling ass. Long runs to a clearing, lifts his binoculars and shrugs. “Just Dogs. The feds brought in trained lion dogs.”

“You have one Godzilla cat roaming around free,” Long was told when he contacted USDA biologists after the first print was found and measured. Since then Fish & Game wardens have worked around the clock with expert federal trackers.

“The best in the business,” says Long. But how could this happen in the first place?

North of Day Creek Ranch is a clump of tony homes and one doublewide, leased by a couple with a big cat fetish. On January 31, Long tranquilized a 90-pound Siberian Lynx that led him to Abby and Emma Hedengran. The couple had 22 cats altogether — nine lynx roamed free as indoor pets, there were servals and caracals in plastic dog carriers, a snow leopard in a rabbit cage and, in a converted horse-trailer, three African lions and two Bengal tigers. The animals were permitted, but their storage was neither humane, nor up to specification. On February 9, Long gave them 72 hours to remove the animals or face charges, and by the 12th all 22 had been relocated.

That’s when it got spooky. On February 15, Luis Romo, Day Creek Ranch’s affable caretaker, saw a wildcat’s tail disappear into the bush, exactly where I’m standing with Long. The next day the cat was seen again – this time chasing a herd of cattle to the doorstep of the Reagan Library. After that, five teams of expert trackers began sniffing, snooping and slogging through the unrelenting rain. They set traps and searched via helicopter equipped with an infrared detection system. One local, would-be hero used live goats as bait. Didn’t work out so well for the goats, but the coyotes loved it. The Hedengrans strangely deny involvement, though they have an extra permit for a tiger, are the only ones in the area that trade captive wildcats, and could have over $50,000 invested in the animal.

This isn’t the first time an exotic, carnivorous feline has prowled Thousand Oaks. In the early sixties, a black panther escaped from Jungleland, a wild animal park and studio concession home to MGM’s Leo the Lion. Eventually the panther was found and killed. As Long and I walk and search, I fear and somehow know that the same fate will meet this scary beautiful beast

The next day, in a ravine bordered by a school, soccer field, shopping center, and a highway that’s exactly what happened. A tracker killed the tiger with a powerful .338 calliber rifle.

The news hit me hard. For days I wondered and worried about this animal who turned the suburbs back into a wild savannah, and now after two and a half weeks of freedom – which must have been filled with exhilaration, confusion and fear it was all over with two quick shots from 200 yards. “It was a sad day,” says Long. “Sad for the tiger and for the person who had to shoot it.”

The public outcry was fierce, but a spokeswoman from Fish and Game told journalists around the world that had the trackers tranquilized the tiger, it might have run, disoriented and pissed, into a populated area and it takes 10 minutes for the drugs to work. “Most people think you can wip out a tranquelizer gun and shoot the thing,” says Long who also explained that weather and topographical conditions further hampered efforts to tranquelize. “But that’s just not the case, it’s way more involved than that.”

Fish and Game continues to investigate the Hedengrans, and charges will likely be filed. But that won’t help a willful tiger that sought and found freedom, and inevitably paid for his owner’s sins.