||December 11th, 2008|
Editor’s Note: One of my favorite local writers has been, for years, Logan Jenkins of the San Diego Union Tribune. We print, verbatim, his current column because we think (a) it’s important, and (b) he’s absolutely correct.
Enjoy a Master Craftsman as he practices his WordSmithery:
To: Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Re: A case for the birds
You're busy. I'll be brief.
Chances are, you've never heard of Dr. Lindy O'Leary.
She's a Poway physician who's spent four years – and roughly $250,000 in legal costs – fighting the state Department of Fish and Game for the right to continue caring for crippled wild birds she has nurtured for 13 of the past 14 years.
To be sure, it's a tangled legal tale. “I can't even put it into words,” said Robyn Ranke, O'Leary's attorney.
To set the scene of the alleged offense, O'Leary's 1-acre-plus ranch is the happy home of three rescued wild horses, an affectionate burro, three emus, rabbits, sheep, a peacock, and assorted dogs and cats. In two spacious walk-in cages, O'Leary keeps three red-tailed hawks, two crows, and eight sea gulls, none of which can fly well enough to survive in the wild.
O'Leary started caring for injured critters in 1994 when a permitted rehabilitation shelter, where O'Leary volunteered, sent 27 birds to O'Leary's ranch. In 2004, the state Fish and Game Department found that O'Leary was harboring the wild animals under a lapsed permit. Seeing as how O'Leary had failed to rehabilitate the birds, they needed to be euthanized, Fish and Game concluded. The disabled birds, as well as a domesticated coyote (or coyote hybrid), were seized from O'Leary's ranch. Fish and Game asked San Diego's city attorney to prosecute O'Leary. (The city attorney declined.)
Meanwhile, O'Leary was fighting to stop the euthanizing of the animals. A year after the confiscation, a judge ruled that the 13 surviving birds be returned to O'Leary until the custody matter could be resolved.
That was three years ago. In the interim, O'Leary has spent a fortune seeking a wildlife permit from Fish and Game. No dice. Convinced that Fish and Game harbors a vendetta against her, O'Leary is challenging in Superior Court the denial of an appeal to the Fish and Game Commission, a board connected to the Department of Fish and Game. (I know. It's complicated.)
But here's the bottom line.
As the head of the legal office representing the state of California in Superior Court, you're a party to this bird-brained mess. You're on the hook to defend the indefensible.
Yes, I know you've got bigger fish to fry. Proposition 8, for one.
It's too bad you can't just visit O'Leary's ranch where she lives with her husband, Gary. You would be amazed. O'Leary's menagerie greets her as if she's the second coming of St. Francis.
One of the emus sticks his head out of the barn to have his head scratched. The horses nuzzle up O'Leary as if she is made of sugar. In one of the two aviaries, she picks up a crippled crow and holds him in her hands. Eight serene sea gulls, none of which can fly properly, stroll around her feet as if it were a lovely afternoon on the beach.
Granted, such a benevolent destiny is not plausible for the vast majority of injured wild animals. No question, O'Leary, an occupational doctor at Kaiser Permanente, is herself a rare bird. She's wired to never give up on disabled patients. She says she could never have been a veterinarian because she couldn't bear to euthanize animals. OK, she's an excitable eccentric. But do you really want to work with Fish and Game to kill the birds and break her bleeding heart?
That's what the O'Leary case boils down to. If she wins, the birds live out their weirdly long life spans in avian luxury. If she loses, they will be quickly snuffed out to prove the point that permanently disabled wild animals have no business living.
Yes, in theory, the wild birds belong to the state. It's Fish and Game's mission to protect them. Or, in this case, kill them. But O'Leary, it seems to me, qualifies as a special case. To take the birds away from her at this point would be a form of civic sadism. If Fish and Game's argument is that naive Samaritans should not be emboldened to take injured critters and turn them into pets, I get that.
But how many injured squirrel stealers could say that they took the squirrel under the auspices of a permitted shelter, kept it at their own expense for more than a decade and then spent a quarter of a million dollars fighting for the right to keep the animal where it's loved like a member of the family?
Answer: Not many.
Ask yourself this question: Why is a state that's on the verge of bankruptcy spending taxpayer dollars so it can kill 13 birds?
The likeliest explanation is bureaucratic malice. (In case you're wondering, Fish and Game's spokesman didn't return a phone call. The Fish and Game Commission declined to comment, reciting the “pending litigation” litany.)
O'Leary, it appears, has become the uppity enemy. Poway's St. Francis must be crushed to prove a point. If that strikes you as stupidly mean, you can do something. Tell Fish and Game to figure out a way to make O'Leary's shelter kosher. Either that or you'll refuse to be a party to this case (just as the San Diego city attorney did four years ago).
“I'll do whatever they want” to get a permit, O'Leary told me last week. After what she has already endured to save the birds, you have to believe her.
In the 1990s, hundreds of schoolchildren toured O'Leary's little zoo. That educational tradition could be resurrected in a heartbeat. Mr. Attorney General, don't let your office be a party to the bureaucratic lynching of an odd little miracle in Poway.
San Diego Union-Tribune