The governor may have a near-monopoly on celebrity in California government,
but the Department of Fish and Game might make the best reality show.
Picture The Simple Life meets When Animals Attack.
The show would have an engaging cast of minor characters, including ravenous
fish, homicidal deer, angry environmentalists, and Paris Hilton.
But the stars might be the agency’s five-person communications team. Most
days they answer phone calls and send out press releases. But the last
couple years have also seen Fish and Game’s Troy Swauger answering questions
about an escaped tiger and colleague Lorna Bernard at the scene of a fatal
mountain lion attack. The agency’s Patrick Foy and Steve Martarano found
themselves in the back of a small plane with the bodies of two chimpanzees
that had been shot while attacking a man and almost killing him.
Of course, there’s the event that got Fish and Game the most widespread
coverage, but one, it never happened and, two, it involved the
famous-for-being-famous Ms. Hilton.
It all started last year when Hilton was photographed at a Los Angeles
fashion show with a ferret. Flashbulbs later found her in Las Vegas in the
company of a kinkajou, a South American relative of the raccoon. Both
ferrets and kinkajous are illegal in California because they threaten native
The entertainment press soon picked up on rumors that Hilton was keeping a
small collection of exotic animals in her L.A.-area home. Soon after that,
Martarano’s phone started ringing. He told reporters that normal policy
would be to send owners of such pets a letter saying they needed to take
them outside the state, but that it was not a high priority for the
department’s overworked staff.
Next thing Martarano knew, The New York Post was reporting that he had sent
Hilton a letter–and that its tone was “threatening.” The story grew from
“There’s all these web sites that try to make the story their own,”
Martarano said, shaking his head. “They say ‘sources said.’ There was a
British tabloid said that we went to her house to take the kinkajou and left
her in tears. It didn’t happen. It was flat-out made up.”
Tabloids later reported that the kinkajou itself left Hilton in tears, or at
least gave her some minor scratches, when it attacked her as she shopped for
lingerie. But Fish and Game often has to deal with far more serious animal
attacks. There were three mountain lion attacks in Southern California in
2004, including one that killed Mark Jeffrey Reynolds, a competitive
mountain bike racer.
One of the department’s animal forensics teams–department staffers describe
them as similar to the kind of crime scene investigators made famous by the
show CSI, except they deal with animal-related incidents–was able to show
that the same lion that killed Reynolds was also the culprit in another
attack several hours later.
The woman who has to deal with these incidents is the communications
department large animal specialist, Lorna Bernard. In fact, when the phone
rang last year after a mountain lion attack, the call was for both Bernard
and her husband Doug Updike, a wildlife biologist with the department.
Bernard had not only had to talk to the media but deal with public hysteria
by giving people facts about lions and information on how to avoid them.
Reported sightings of lions always jump after an attack. Sometimes people
mistake large housecats or even tan-colored dogs for lions; police have even
mistaken shot the wrong kind of animals before, she said.
The work has its more enjoyable moments, as well, Bernard said. For
instance, in 2003 the couple got to care for two orphaned mountain lion cubs
in their home.
“We were the most popular house in the neighborhood,” Bernard said. “All the
kids wanted to come over.”
But if 2004 was the Year of the Lion, 2005 bizarrely became the Year of the
Deer when that species carried out several serious attacks. In September, 73
year-old Ron Dudek accidentally surprised a buck while picking tomatoes in
his garden in Mendocino County. He died three weeks after being gored in the
face and throat. This was followed by another attack on people nearby and a
third that killed a dog in Orinda. With the deer population exploding in
California’s burgeoning suburbs, the department is bracing for more of these
Martarano said his most exhausting media circus came after two escaped
chimpanzees mutilated and nearly killed a man at an animal sanctuary in Kern
County. Martarano and Foy stayed up all night answering questions from
20/20, FoxNews and numerous other media outlets–then flew the bodies back to
Sacramento with the animal forensics team.
Most people picture chimps as the adorable adolescents seen in movies and
TV. But Martarano said that a male chimp can weigh 150 pounds–most of it
arms and torso–and are strong enough to rip a grown man to pieces.
Fish and Game’s most protracted public relations battle, however, involves
an animal that is neither cute nor dangerous to humans. In 1994, northern
pike were discovered in Lake Davis, which lies in the Sierras near Nevada.
Native to the Upper Midwest and Canada, the ravenous carnivores soon began
to decimate the local trout population.
In 1997, the department poisoned the lake with rotenone, a substance which
kills fish but it supposed to pose no threat to humans. The move had the
uncommon effect of bringing environmentalists and rural residents
together–in vehement opposition to Fish and Game. People lambasted the
agency in local papers, and some restaurants refused to serve them.
It wasn’t the department’s best moment, said Bill Powers, then the mayor of
the nearby town of Portola, which gets drinking water from Lake Davis. A
lack of communication–the full recipe of the rotenone cocktail was hidden as
a “trade secret,” he said–led to increasingly wild rumors. Eventually there
was a standoff at the lake involving hundreds of angry demonstrators and
scores of police–a PR failure by any standard. This was defused, but the
next day Powers and three others swam out into the Lake and chained
themselves to buoys.
“People in town were ready to believe anything,” Powers said. “Since then,
things have changed dramatically.”
The rotenone treatment went forward, but the pike reappeared in 1999. Since
then, the department worked with locals to form the Lake Davis Steering
Committee, now chaired by Powers. In 2000, the group recommended less toxic
ways to control the pike, such as low-level explosives and electrocution.
Unfortunately, Martarano said, PR success hasn’t equaled success in the
water. Over six years the department removed 60,000 pike. This is fewer than
the number of eggs one female pike can lay in a year, Martarano said, and
the population has kept increasing. The department is once again evaluating
partially draining the lake and dosing it with rotenone. Martarano and his
colleagues are going have to explain why.
“If Lake Davis were in the middle of nowhere with no connection to anything,
it wouldn’t matter so much,” Martarano said. “But where it sits, the pike
could get into the entire San Joaquin River system. That could devastate
California’s salmon and trout populations. The stakes are high.”