Dispatches, September 1998
Last May, when California Fish and Game warden Dave Smith got a call informing him that a black bear was skulking around a suburb of Riverside, Smith did what he usually does in such cases: He filled three high-impact plastic syringes with a potent anesthetic called Telazol, grabbed his Pneu-Dart tranquilizer rifle, and set out in pursuit. The warden intended the bear no harm. "It wasn't aggressive," he recalls. "It just wandered out of its territory, and we were going to give it a ride back to where it belonged."
Two hours later, Smith and his team located the interloper. It lumbered across a pasture and clambered up a tree, thereby exposing its haunch and allowing Smith's colleague, Steve White, an easy shot. The dart found its mark; the bear lowered itself to the ground, stumbled woozily into a small puddle, inhaled a bucketful of water, and drowned. Aghast, the wardens furiously pumped foamy water from the bruin's lungs and performed mouth-to-snout resuscitation. To no avail: The bear never revived. "We sure didn't intend to kill this one," Smith says. "But you just never know what's going to go wrong when you're dealing with wild animals."
Contrary to what is generally assumed, the science of wildlife darting (or immobilization, as the pros call it) has never been the sort of clinical, fail-safe process Marlin Perkins made it appear on Wild Kingdom. Ever since the first dart rifle replaced the old net-and-wrestle capture techniques, animal darters wielding guns, syringes, and poisons so deadly that a single drop can kill a human have been leaving carcasses all over the world. Toppled elephants and rhinos have ruptured their stomachs upon hitting the ground; stupefied apes have plunged from neck-breaking heights; and innumerable tigers, lions, and wolves have simply keeled over dead. One typical incident involved a group of researchers participating in the early stages of an ambitious program to track and preserve the highly endangered Florida panther. While darting one of the cats in order to outfit it with a radio collar, the shooter sent a dart directly into the animal's femoral artery. The panther died on the spot.
Today, 40 years after the invention of the dart rifle, the science is still so haphazard that at least one-third of all immobilizations are botched in some way — infected wounds, broken legs, or death. Which is why masters of the trade are now scrambling to impose some badly needed regulations. "Anyone can buy a dart gun out of a feed catalog," says Keith Beheler-Amass, a Wisconsin wildlife veterinarian who has conducted more than 30 workshops for novice dart-shooters around the country this year. "The important thing is knowing how to keep the animal alive." To that end, Beheler-Amass and several colleagues have just launched darting's first Internet database, a resource that arms harried game wardens with specifications on drugs, dosages, and where to aim. Meanwhile, just last year the federal government finally imposed new rules mandating that all would-be immobilizers pass a basic course in equipment, drug handling, and patient care.
Nevertheless, experts are still concerned that far too many amateurs are harming the fauna they're trying to protect. "Some of the mortality rates are atrocious," says Beheler-Amass, who recently got a call from a game manager who was trying to immobilize 23 whitetail deer. "He managed to kill 19 of them. It was a slaughter."
Photograph by ????