Animal control worker didn’t deserve this |

Animal control worker didn’t deserve this

Editorial by Claire Fortier

Ruthie Cecchetini-Hughes doesn’t know what hit her.

Who can blame her? She never saw the avalanche of manure coming at her until she was buried in it.

Now she’s lost the job she loved. She faces two misdemeanor charges and she has been the unwilling focus of several front-page Tahoe Daily Tribune stories.

Ruthie is the first one to admit she was wrong, if someone will listen. But she is hardly guilty of a vile misdeed or anything that remotely warrants such condemnation.

For Ruthie, the last three months have been a fiasco of Kafkaesque proportions that began on Dec. 2. That’s when El Dorado Animal Control was called to pick up a bear cub carcass near Taylor Creek. The cub had been hit by a car.

The call was somewhat unusual for Ruth, an El Dorado County animal control officer. While road kill is hardly unusual in wildlife-rich Lake Tahoe, a bear cub was. In her almost nine years with animal control, Ruthie had only seen about about a half-dozen bear carcasses.

Ruthie is the kind of person who became the very symbol of her job. A fixture at the front counter of the county’s animal control office, she greeted animal adopters and animal dumpers with equal respect. She was always friendly, even as she grilled prospective animal owners as if they were adopting her pets. She knew the history of almost every stray dog and cat on the South Shore, and most often knew the owners.

She was never called “officer” or even “Mrs. Hughes.” It was always “Ruthie.” She had that kind of warmth for man and beast.

During her time with animal control, Ruthie had shipped countless animal carcasses to rendering plants. The process of ridding the South Shore of rotting animal carcasses was an unpleasant, but routine, part of animal control’s job.

Once a bear carcass sat in the bed of a animal control truck for several days because no one would take it. The 300-pound bear didn’t interest the rendering plant. The dump sure didn’t want it and getting it there was a problem. Finally, the California Department of Transportation got a back hoe and buried the bear on Forest Service property.

No group came forward to claim the body. In fact, no one seemed to care.

That’s why it never crossed Ruthie’s mind that anyone would miss this particular bear cub carcass.

Ruthie and her husband are of Native American ancestry. They admire all

things Native American and have Indian things around their house. Her husband is a hunter and they both share a belief in honoring animal spirits. They saw nothing wrong with bringing home the hide of an already dead bear and displaying it as they did other things Native American.

Any other day no one would have noticed, even more importantly would have thought it a crime.

But the BEAR League was feuding with the California Department of Fish & Game and demanded to see the bear cub carcass. Fish & Game was testy over the recent spate of criticism regarding its method of handling marauding bears.

So when the flurry of activity, which included the Tahoe Daily Tribune coverage, finally hovered on the unlocked freezer door just outside of the El Dorado Animal Control office, a not-so-funny thing happened. The bear cub carcass was gone.

The fur did fly as everyone tried to find the missing body.

And this is where Ruthie made her first mistake. She didn’t volunteer that she took the carcass. Suddenly she was in the middle of a maelstrom and she was scared. That’s when she made her second mistake – tossing the cub remains.

When asked outright, Ruthie readily admitted to taking the bear carcass. She knew she had made a mistake, although she had no idea at the time it was illegal. Nothing in the animal control rules and regulations addressed the issue of unclaimed wildlife.

But there is nothing government hates more than maelstroms, particularly those that excite annoying activists capable of garnering press attention. Government needed to dole out punishment, even if there was no real law against snatching carcasses from the rendering plant.

Fish and Game cited Ruthie with one count of taking a bear unlawfully. But the El Dorado District Attorney’s Office thought the charge too vague, especially since Fish and Game regulations state possessing accidentally killed wildlife was not an unlawful take.

To clarify the offense, the District Attorney charged Ruthie with unlawful possession of a bear and taking a bear without a hunting license. Both are minor offenses, on the same level as not clearing the trash around your house or failing to obtain a building permit.

Even so, the charge of taking a bear without a hunting license borders on ridiculous.

The judge who initially heard Ruthie’s case refused to take her no-contest plea because he didn’t understand the crime. She now has a court-appointed attorney to explain to the judge what she herself has yet to understand.

The El Dorado Health Department, which oversees animal control, has adroitly managed to sidestep several maelstroms in recent years. It couldn’t be accused of harboring carcass-swiping animal control officers.

Since Ruthie didn’t admit to her error without being asked and had been cited by the DA, she was deemed no longer trustworthy and fired. Or so she was told.

The truth is probably had much more to do with the Tribune’s coverage than the severity of a minor infraction.

As for the Tribune, anything bear is big news. Covering the story inadvertently helped create Ruthie’s downfall. But not covering the story would have resulted in outrage over an alleged cover up.

Makes you think twice about owning a bear rug, doesn’t it?

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