Kevin L. Hoover
BAYSIDE – Area animal welfare activists co-sponsored a forum for the four candidates for Humboldt County District Attorney Friday, April 16 evening at the Humboldt Area Foundation. It’s fair to say that the fur flew.
“We want to make sure that people know you can’t abuse animals in Humboldt County,” said Cynthia Ryan, executive director of the Sequoia Humane Society. She presented the candidates – Kathleen Bryson, Paul Hagen, Allison Jackson and Paul Gallegos – with a list of topics to address. These had to do with the candidates’ policies toward animal abuse, prosecution of suspects and ways to improve enforcement.
An hour of socializing preceded the candidates’ presentations. Attendees munched meatless snacks and quaffed the abundant wine and beer as the DA hopefuls filtered in.
Each candidate had 15 minutes to make their case to attendees, which included members of the Humboldt Vegetarian Society, various animal rescue organizations and free-range animal activists.
First up was former Humboldt prosecutor, now private attorney Kathleen Bryson. “Animals are close to all of our hearts,” she said. “These are member of our family... They’re a person who needs our protection.”
From an adjacent room, Bryson produced her animal companion, Latte, a Lab/Shar-Pei mix, standing the confused dog up on his hind legs for a reluctant display of furry fealty. For the rest of the evening, though, Bryson was brushing whisps of fur off her black pantsuit.
During her time as a deputy district attorney, Bryson said, she took animal abuse “very seriously.”
She said she understands the value of animal companionship. She has volunteered, she said, with the Heart if the Redwoods horse rehabilitation group.
“They mean a lot to the elderly,” she said. “It lifts the day of an elderly person.”
At one point one of the small, pesky flies in the room buzzed Bryson, but she chose not to murder the micro-menace in front of a room full of animal lovers. “We’ve got bugs flying in this room but I won’t squash it,” Bryson said to laughter from the audience.
She said animal cruelty can be abated the same ways other crimes are – with citizen involvement.
“Pet owners can be vigilant in their own neighborhoods,” she said.
Bryson then went into differences between criminal and civil litigation, and possibilities for restitution. Emotional losses are not quantifiable, but can be compensated via civil litigation.
Bryson lamented that Humboldt has no level 1 or level 2 animal control.
She said her goal as DA would be to cooperate closely with police agencies on animal cases and to supplement enforcement and prosecution with the use of experts.
Incumbent District Attorney Paul Gallegos said that “animal abuse cases are a priority in the DAs office.”
He said that both passive and willful neglect constitute abuse, and shouldn’t be ignored, as it may indicate other forms of crime.
“We see that as a measure of violence against human beings,” Gallegos said.
Another behavior, animal hoarding, is associated with mental health issues and explains the case of Elsie Smith, a woman responsible for starving dozens of horses in Miranda. Gallegos said Smith was mentally ill, “not a bad person” and shouldn’t go to prison. In cases like hers, treatment and education are preferred.
Gallegos said that he’s 48 years of age, the ninth of 11 kids in his family and has had animals all his life. “I love animals, I’ve grown up around animals,” he said “I continue to have animals.”
Saying that animal protection is “a priority,” Gallegos said plainly that “my first responsibility is the people of Humboldt County. People.”
While animal mistreatment is intolerable, Gallegos said, “I do not put that in the same category as someone doing violence against people. I don’t because I can’t.”
The law, he said, dictates his response, starting with sufficient admissible evidence to get a verdict of 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, he said, restitution is determined by law.”
Despite scant resources, Gallegos urged citizens to get involved in cases of animal abuse. “Reach out and contact us,” he said. “We aren’t perfect, but we do care. This is a community problem that will only be solved with community participation. Bring us evidence.”
Evidence was the weak link in the case of Ray Christie, found with 1,300 roosters and numerous cockfighting implements. Some attendees had discussed the case, with disparaging comments about Gallegos, prior to the actual forum.
“There was not a shred of evidence of actual cockfighting,” Gallegos said. “The drugs and blades were circumstantial.”
In the end, Christie pleaded guilty to possession of cockfighting knives. “That’s what the process did,” Gallegos said. “It was not from lack of commitment.”
Unlike those who spoke before him, former environmental prosecutor Paul Hagen didn’t make any effort to position himself as an animal lover. Instead, he started by saying that he isn’t one.
“I don’t have any anecdotes or homilies to tell you,” Hagen said. As a child, he said he had a dog. His kids have had rats and hamsters, but they died.
“I’m not that well connected with animals or plants,” Hagen told the crowd. “I don’t have the compass inside that you do, but I salute you.”
He said he detected a “sense of disempowerment, that the law doesn’t provide for you” among the animal welfare community. “I want to help you to feel empowered.”
Hagen portrayed himself not as an animal fan, but as a legal eagle with a firm grasp of the rules and procedures required to gain convictions.
Hagen detailed his background as an environmental prosecutor for 11 years, first in Mendocino, then as a circuit prosecutor for the California District Attorney’s Association in four counties.
“Environmental cases are off the beaten path in the prosecutor’s office,” he said. Everyday cases are things like DUIs, then extraordinary cases of rape and violence, then unusual cases. But, he said, the procedures are the same.
“Everyone has in their heart compassion,” Hagen said. “You do not have to be a vet or police officer to make these cases.”
He said he looked for two things to bring suspects to trial, then prosecute and convict them.
First, “the boss does not say no and would allow it.” Second, he said, “You had to have gotta-wanna.” That is, enthusiasm.
“The way people treat animals is indicative of the way they treat people,” Hagen said. “Animals are a form of people. They are like humans in another form of body.”
That statement was well received by the room full of beast friends, who responded with enthusiastic applause.
He said that he didn’t know the legal nitty-gritty of Smith and Christie cases and wouldn’t second guess the way they were handled.
“You’re intelligent and caring people,” Hagen concluded.
He encouraged those concerned to dialogue with relevant authorities such as police and the state Dept. of Fish and Game.
“It can be done, all you have to do is make sure that the powers that be are aligned with you,” Hagen said. “That’s what I will do.”
Allison Jackson wasn’t shy about her animal compassion connections. “The rescue community is a very special one,” she said. “It has demands and pressures that others not involved don’t understand.”
She said she had helped form Carly’s Ride, a group providing transportation for rescued animals to willing adopters.
Jackson said she’s owned three rescue dogs, two of whom had trauma issues. She related tales of animal ownership that clearly found resonance with attendees..
“It’s vital that the district attorney be sensitive to capacity issues at the shelter,” Jackson said. That, she said, will minimize euthanization.
She said abuse held important “nuances” beyond the obvious suffering of animals.
“Animal abusers move on to offending against humans,” she said. “Often they pick on children and women.”
For 20 years, Jackson said, she has been a “staunch advocate” for innocent victims, with focus on special victims cases – child, sexual, elderly and animals.
She said she that in the 1990s, she argued to then-DA Terry Farmer to prosecute an animal abuse case.
“I have an incredible reputation among shelter and animal rescue workers,” she said.
The “vast majority of cases are uncharged or languish for months before being prosecuted,”Jackson said. “Only high profile cases are prosecuted.”
A case of neglected wolf pups, she said, met delays at DA’s office which meant the pups spent their first few months of life “locked up because the office could not make a decision.” She blamed Gallegos directly for “lack of management, indecision and lack of prioritization.”
A 2004 case of alleged abuse against 61 dogs and a horse lost in court, she said, “either because of incompetence or disregard. “What happened to these dogs could have totally been avoided if the DA had done his job.”
Said Jackson, “This is going to change when I’m your DA.”
“Animals are sentient beings,” Jackson said, her ire up. “They feel and they hurt. Child abuse, animal abuse, senior abuse are all top priorities.”She said the results of the Elsie Smith case weren’t adequate. “I would have had her plea to all 40 or tried the case,” she said.
“Animals are being let down by this administration,” Jackson said. “We need to change the administration in our DA’s office because we have no administration in our DA’s office. The office is in disarray from lack of administration.”
Throughout the forum, Gallegos had enjoyed the advantage of being able to speak with authority and from experience on animal-related cases with which his office had been involved. The downside was that the animal welfare enthusiasts present were able to refer to that same paper trail to critique his performance.
Then it was time to ask the candidates questions. An attendee asked what could be done about homeless people and their not-always well cared-for animal companions.
Jackson said that without evidence of abuse or neglect, nothing could be done. But she recommended talking to the owners to ensure proper care.
Hagen said he agreed with Jackson. “If there’s no deprivation, torture or maiming, there’s no proof of a crime,” he said. “That’s the way it is.”
Gallegos said he prosecuted a man kicking a puppy along the freeway, because it was reported by passerby and there were witnesses.
Blue Lake City Councilmember Sherman Schapiro expressed frustration with Gallegos’s handling of the infamous 2003 case in which eight puppies were shot, throat-slit and crushed and then dumped on the roadside.
Schapiro said he spent a long time on the phone with Gallegos and his longtime political supporter Richard Salzman regarding the disposition of the puppies' mother, only to be told that the matter was a property rights issue.
Gallegos said the court made that determination, and that he didn’t recall talking to Schapiro.
“We need someone with a business background in the DA’s office,” Bryson said, objecting to what she said was “misallocation of resources.”
A woman asked Gallegos whether he was the defense attorney for a man who had poisoned five cats with tuna laced with anti-freeze in 2002. She said he had fought to get the five felony counts of animal cruelty reduced to misdemeanors. “It was a slap on the hand,” she said.
Gallegos confirmed that he did represent the man, but that details were lost to memory after several years. “I see my job to do the best that I can for the people that I represent,” Gallegos said.
Jackson was quick to reply. “I was the prosecutor in that case,” she said, in something of a Perry Mason moment. “Yes, Mr. Gallegos did argue in closing arguments that it was OK to lace tuna with anti-freeze to stop cats from coming in his yard.”
That sealed the deal for one attendee. “There are many DAs who will prosecute aggressively,” a woman in the audience told Gallegos. “I went door to door for you two times and I regret it and will never do it again.”