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Main photograph by George Sakkestad

Dog GoneThis pooch named Bear (inset) died at the hands of a local rancher who had every legal right to shoot in defense of his livestock. But residents near the rural land worry that the law may put humans at risk as well.

Folly Rancher

Welcome to the country, urban dweller. And remember: they can shoot your dog here.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

LATE LAST YEAR, residents of the suburban community of Santa Teresa were dismayed to learn that under certain circumstances, people living near their quiet neighborhood could pull out a rifle and kill their dogs. Legally.

The revelation came at 9:30 last Christmas morning when 58-year-old rancher Richard Vargas used a high-powered rifle to shoot and kill a 17-month-old Siberian husky belonging to local residents, because, he said, the dog was harassing cattle on a grassy slope of the Santa Teresa foothills. The shooting took place at the end of Snell Avenue, within a few hundred yards of tree-lined backyards and winding city streets, in an area where children often play and residents take evening walks with their pets.

The killing of the dog, whose name was Bear, sparked several community meetings in the Santa Teresa community and the circulation of a petition calling for a county ordinance to prevent the discharge of weapons in unincorporated areas within 1,000 yards of homes, parks and public places. The group has enlisted the support of San Jose Councilmember Charlotte Powers and San Jose Police Chief William Lansdowne.

But they face a potential hurdle in the fact that most area ranchers, despite the encroachment of urbanization, insist that they need the freedom to shoot dogs to maintain the safety of their livestock. Possible opposition may also come from county Supervisor Don Gage, whose district includes the area where the shooting took place. Gage won his post as representative of the Santa Teresa/Gilroy areas with strong support from the National Rifle Association.

AT THE CENTER of the controversy are Bear's owners, Jordan and Cathy Ciprian, who live near the base of the hill where the dog was killed, and raised the husky from a puppy. The 38-year-old Jordan, assistant environmental specialist with the city's solid waste program, arrived at the scene minutes after the shooting and had to carry the bloodied body of his 60-pound dog back down the hill. Pictures of Bear show a hole the size of a quarter through his chest. Jordan still has to take a breath and fight back tears when he thinks of the incident.

"We don't have any children," Jordan says of himself and his 30-year-old wife, Cathy, a high-tech worker. "Bear was our child."

It was Jordan and Cathy who passed out leaflets about the shooting, called the initial community meeting at Sakamoto Elementary School, and drew up the anti-gunfire petition presently posted online at www.PetitionOnline.com/BEAR/petition.html.

But while the Ciprians say the shooting was unnecessary, they acknowledge that their own actions helped lead to the death of Bear. They admit they were trespassing on private property in the unincorporated lands above Snell while walking their dog. Bear was unleashed (a violation of county ordinance), and the dog went completely out of their control and sight when he took off after a pair of stray cattle who appeared on the wooded hillside.

That chasing of the cattle was the crucial fact. Section 31102(a) of the state Food And Agriculture Code provides that a dog may be killed in any unincorporated area of the state if "[t]he dog is found in the act of killing, wounding, or persistently pursuing or worrying livestock or poultry on land or premises which are not owned or possessed by the owner of the dog." Richard Vargas, the man who pulled the trigger, is the owner of the cattle that Bear was chasing.

Vargas could not be reached by Metro for this story. However, a Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department spokesperson said that Vargas' and the Ciprians' accounts of the shooting differ.

"The dog owners said that they were right with their dog and right behind it," the spokesperson reports. "The rancher says that some time passed before the owners came. He [says he] threw a hammer at [the dog] and made some efforts to dissuade the dog from harassing the cows and said he was calling, 'Somebody come get this dog.'"

Jordan Ciprian believes that state law is flat out wrong.

"I couldn't shoot a coyote up in those hills if it was going after my dog," he says. "You can't shoot a dog who's harassing your cat. You have to call Animal Control for that. OK, maybe we shouldn't have been up there. But Bear wasn't trying to hurt the cattle. He was just playing. Why should that give a rancher the right to kill my dog?"

JOHN BAIRD, the president of the 150-member Santa Clara County Cattlemen's Association, is no dog-hater. In fact, his rolling-hills ranch some 10 miles south down Santa Teresa Boulevard from the Ciprians seems to be a dog paradise. The one-lane road leading to the ranch house has several posted signs asking drivers to slow for children and animals. Sheep dogs greet a visitor's car in the yard, tails wagging and clamoring to get in. Inside, Chihuahuas rule the kitchen, standing on hind legs to look in laps for food or a pat on the head.

Baird opposes the proposed 1,000-yard firearm buffer zone, saying that if a rancher uses his weapon recklessly in defense of his livestock, there are plenty of laws already on the books to prosecute. He thinks that the state livestock protection law is proper and since state law supersedes county ordinances, he believes that it will continue to allow ranchers to shoot dogs they feel are threatening their cattle, even if a county ordinance is passed.

The stocky, weathered cattleman spreads out a series of Polaroid snapshots on the kitchen table of his spread-out Morgan Hill ranch home. Taken in the late '70s in the Morgan Hill and Uvas Cañon areas, one shows a herd of some 30 goats slaughtered in their pens, another shows several cattle killed or mutilated in another attack. According to Baird, both sets of livestock were attacked by packs of neighborhood dogs. He says that while incidents of dogs harassing livestock are not frequent, people do not understand how serious the problem is. "We're not talking about wild dogs; these are people's pets," Baird says. "Look, a domestic dog is not that far removed from being a wild dog on the evolutionary chain. People might think the dogs are playing, but the livestock doesn't. It can cause them severe harm. Nobody enjoys killing a dog, but sometimes it has to be done to protect your livelihood."

THE AFTERMATH of the killing of the Ciprians' dog has been a struggle for control of the Santa Teresa foothills.

At issue is roughly 1,000 acres of open space along the South Valley hills stretching from Santa Teresa County Park at its eastern edge to Almaden Lake Park on the west. The property is a jurisdictional mish-mash. The San Jose city limit stops at the base of the hills. At the crest of the hills, the city limit resumes again. In between is a long strip of unincorporated, privately owned land bordered by a drainage canal leased by the Santa Clara County Water District. Property owners have long rented out the rural property to ranchers such as Richard Vargas to graze their cattle.

More recently, Santa Teresa residents also use the hillside for hiking, passing across the boundary between the quarter-acre Century Oak Park, which is in the city limits at the base of the hill at the end of Snell Avenue, and the wooded, private acres above.

At the community meetings held in the wake of Bear's death, several Santa Teresa residents complained that last Christmas' dog shooting was not an isolated incident--many said that gunfire is common in the Santa Teresa foothills near their homes. Some blamed hunters or target shooters. Eventually, the meetings resulted in the formation of the Santa Teresa Foothills Preservation Committee, which supports the weapon-free buffer zone petition, but which also wants to establish public control of the foothills land through its purchase by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.

"Let's not wait until somebody gets shot," says five-year Santa Teresa resident John Hessler, a senior environmentalist with a local consulting firm and one of the leaders of the Preservation Committee. "Kids go up there in the hills. Yeah, they're trespassing, but given the fact that there are a lot of homes up there, both at the top of the hill and at the bottom, it seems like a reasonable thing to have the Board of Supervisors pass a restriction on discharge of weapons in that area."

He says that the elimination of cattle ranching along the hillside is not the goal of the group.

"I think people understand that the cattle provide a service," he explains, "like keeping the brush down for fire prevention. What has been the problem is that because the cattle are on private land, the public has no say over what goes on. So the thought is if it were open-space public land, maybe some cattle grazing could still go on, but maybe it could be restricted to certain areas."

Both Hessler and the Ciprians have praised the response of Chief Lansdowne to their concerns. They say that since the meetings have begun, Lansdowne has followed through on increased police patrols to the area, including officers on horseback riding through the hillside and traveling over by helicopter.

The community also has the support of District 2 Councilmember Powers, who is coordinating the effort to have the unincorporated hillside property purchased by the Open Space District.

"This is an area that is surrounded by urban folks," Powers explains. "It's really inappropriate in that really small area to have firearms available."

But Powers says since the land is unincorporated, the buffer zone, which she supports, is really a county matter. That brings the issue into the hands of County Supervisor Don Gage, who represents the area and serves as vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors' Public Safety and Justice Committee.

A spokesperson for Gage says that the supervisor has not yet seen the firearm buffer zone petition or taken a position on it.

"The supervisor has no thoughts on it at all yet," says land use policy aide Jenny Derry. Derry says Gage and Powers are currently setting up a meeting to discuss the various issues involved.

Captain Jerry Hall of the Sheriff's Department, who has attended several of the Santa Teresa community meetings, says that he hasn't seen the petition yet, but believes his department would be opposed to a firearm buffer zone.

"There hasn't been a showing that there's been a danger caused by the current situation," Hall says. "I'm not saying that I'm not concerned about people shooting so close to houses. But we have laws that probably cover 99 percent of the people who are shooting on that property because it's most likely trespassers."

Hall says he thinks the Santa Teresa dispute is a case of suburban homeowners not wanting to accept the realities of rural life. "I think we're caught in between of wanting to live in this area that has this rural beauty and not accepting the fact that with rural beauty comes some different lifestyles."

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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