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Busting The Good Samaritan

San Diego Police Called Wildlife Activist Bob Farner to Remove an Injured Deer. So How Did He Become The Focus of a Criminal Investigation?

August 12, 2001|FRED DICKEY, Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about a free speech dispute on the Berkeley campus of the University of California

Copyright Los Angeles Times

Bob Farner handles the nestling pigeon carefully, aware of the lack of grace in his gnarled fingers. He puts an eyedropper in the squab's mouth and squeezes food down its gullet. A grade-school boy and girl at his elbow watch intently. The boy suddenly points to Farner's forearm. "It pooped on you," he shouts with glee.

"That's all right, it washes off," Farner says, stroking the bird's feathers. "This little one was pushed away by its mother. It'd have died sure." He puts the pigeon down, wipes his hands on work-dirty jeans, and with the slow stiffness of an aging man suffering from arthritis and a heart ailment, starts for a spacious homemade cage a few yards away. The children follow.

"This is Ray the raven," Farner says, opening the wire door. The large black bird seems unconcerned as Farner's hand grips its legs and gently withdraws it. Suddenly, the scissors-like beak digs into the side of his first finger. Farner doesn't flinch as blood flows from the gouge. "Ray must have gotten up on the wrong side," he says, soothing the feathers under the bill and showing how the bird's broken wing had been pinned in place, making it unfit for the wild.

Farner, 78, lives on the dusty outskirts of Vista, a pit bull of a town in northern San Diego County. His severely modest half-acre property is primarily a home for his family of sea gulls, ducks, ravens, rabbits, chickens, cats and a snoozing alligator--only a few of the thousands of wild animals he has rescued through the years. Playing in the sun near the back door are a pack of scary curs that would look well placed guarding a meth lab. But when he touches the biggest one, a Rottweiler, it nuzzles back, slobbering on the hand of the man who brought him here as a death reprieve after it had torn apart a goat. Nearby, chickens strut alongside a pit-bull mix that ignores them.

Farner walks to the edge of a fenced pond to hand-feed a thawed chicken to Al the alligator. Al was a few inches long when sold by a pet store 45 years ago. Now he is 7 feet and no longer cuddly--except to Farner, who took him in because, like most of his animals, Al would have no idea how to make it in the wild.

Farner has been helping animals this way for decades. At a glance, the gray-haired World War II veteran could pass for a retired janitor, which he is, or for a lover of all things living, which he also is. Few would take him for a criminal accused of animal cruelty.


IT WAS ABOUT 7 A.M. ON FEB. 1, 2000, AND Nancy Walters was taking a walk in a wooded area near an elementary school in suburban Rancho Penasquitos in northern San Diego. Her barking dog drew her attention to a young buck deer. It had been hit by a car and was struggling to move, but it kept collapsing. Alarmed, she hurried home to call for help. For the next hour, Walters called agency after agency, nine in all, seeking someone, anyone, to come help the poor animal. No one responded. One woman at a rescue service said, "Look, dear, the reason no one will come out is that the deer will have to be killed, and no one wants to do it." Finally, Walters called police.

Twenty-five miles away, Farner was finishing feeding his animals when the phone rang. It was a San Diego police dispatcher requesting his help in picking up the deer. Farner is not very good at saying no. It had been his practice for many years to respond to police calls for the removal of roadside injured and dead animals. If the creatures could be helped, he would rehabilitate them. If an animal couldn't be saved, he would have it shot so the carcass could be fed to one of the other large animals he commonly had in his custody, such as a bobcat, coyote or mountain lion. Using a chemical to euthanize them would spoil the meat for feeding.

So Farner loaded the five dogs he almost always travels with into his black 1971 Chevy van and drove to the site. There he found uniformed officers waiting with the deer, which had been struck perhaps three hours earlier but which they believed could be saved. Its intestines were partially out of its body, Farner says. It was in deep shock, with eyes fixed, and was in the process of dying. The officers helped him load the animal into the van with the dogs. It was about 9:30 when Farner drove away, and straight into a dilemma.

He had assumed that the deer would be dead when he picked it up, as they usually were, and had planned to go on to a doctor's appointment before returning to Vista to feed the deer to his mountain lion. But then he realized that he had a live animal on his hands. His appointment was at 10:30 at the VA hospital in La Jolla, where he was to be monitored for an experimental medication, one of eight drugs he was taking for heart disease. To have the deer killed immediately, he would have to drive to the federal game warden at Camp Pendleton about 40 miles away, or if he wanted to euthanize it, he would have to find a veterinarian who could examine the deer and do it quickly.

Farner looked at the animal more closely. It was comatose. So he drove to the hospital, kept his appointment and returned home without checking on the deer, which he assumed was dead. But once he arrived at his house, he examined the animal again and was astonished to find it still alive. He took it to Camp Pendleton, where federal game warden Vic Yoder had it shot at about 2 p.m. The deer definitely needed to be destroyed, Yoder says.

About three months later, Farner took a phone call from San Diego police Sgt. Charles Peck, with a representative of the San Diego Humane Society on the line. Farner says he answered the sergeant's questions and even joked with him--until he was told that he might be prosecuted for not destroying the deer more quickly.

Peck remembers thinking during the call that Farner was "a great guy, very friendly and open." Even so, he says, Farner "broke the law" by allowing the deer to suffer. Police broadened their investigation, interviewing animal rehabilitation experts and veterinarians. The case file eventually grew to four inches. The investigation did not include inquiries into Farner's medical problems or his past good works. "My job is to investigate," Peck says. He believes it's the duty of prosecutors to weigh the importance of such extenuating factors. Farner was never interrogated in person.

Among those approached by investigators was Sally Lambert, president of Emergency Wildlife Rehabilitation in Lakeside, who has known Farner for more than 20 years. "Some detective called me and made all sorts of accusations against Bob about delayed treatment, which amazed me. Any one of us could be in that position. Many times, when an injured animal is brought into a veterinarian's office, it's not looked at right away. You know, it may take the vet three or even four hours before she gets to a freebie. Should that vet be prosecuted?"

Police first talked with the San Diego County district attorney's office about the possibility of bringing felony charges against Farner. But they eventually took the case to the city attorney's office, which on Jan. 26, five days before the one-year statute of limitations would have run its course, filed two misdemeanor charges: cruelty to animals, for allowing the animal to live too long and for keeping it in the van with his dogs, and illegal possession of a wild animal. Farner no longer had a rehabilitation permit to allow him to transport the deer.

Each count carries a penalty of up to a year in jail. Together, they could result in fines as high as $20,000.


THE CHARGES HIT FARNER HARD. AS LAMBERT EXPLAINS: "it's like a priest being accused of stealing from the poor box."

Ulla Farner, his wife of 54 years, says, "He was sick about it. He kept repeating, 'They're saying I'm a criminal.' When you've never been accused of anything illegal, and then you get called a criminal in your late 70s, that's hard to take." That may be especially true for Farner, a decorated war hero for whom life could have been easier.

As a teenager, Farner ran away from his Colorado home to join the Marine Corps, and he soon found himself a bodyguard for Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Japanese onslaught against Corregidor in the Philippines. When the fortress fell in 1942, Farner and his mates were captured. He spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war, tortured and threatened with summary execution by his Japanese captors. When liberated at the end of the war, he was given the Silver Star and Bronze Star for heroism.

Farner then went on to serve during the Korean War, eventually retiring from the Marines, 70% disabled from his wartime injuries. He found work as a janitor and security guard, but he took his pleasure from helping animals. For more than 25 years he spent thousands of evenings and hundreds of weekends rescuing and trying to save an estimated 30,000 wild animals brought to grief by human predation or carelessness. In 1982 he started Bob Farner's Wildlife, a nonprofit devoted to rehabilitating animals--owls, coyotes, bobcats, curs, possums, virtually every kind of animal that exists in Southern California. If they could be returned to the wild, Farner took them to the woods and opened the cage. If they couldn't, he offered them a home.

In recent years, slowed by heart disease and age, he was forced to relinquish his rehabilitation license. He moved all but a few animals to a nearby drug-rehab facility, Green Oaks Farm, where their care has become part of addicts' therapy.

To fill the void, he retained his permit to keep animals for educational purposes and turned his energies to making children aware. "I say, 'Look, boys and girls, you treat animals nice, they're gonna treat you nice. With most people, it's the same way. You treat your friends nice, they're gonna treat you nice. Animals, they don't care who you are; they can spot mean people, though. They don't go around attacking people. They only kill to survive. They take no pleasure from it.' "

As the case against him persisted, Farner turned the incident over and over in his mind, wondering where his conduct had been wrong. "I was up at night, every night, walking the room, watching the TV, sometimes to dawn. That deer was in deep shock, on the verge of death. It couldn't feel nothing. I couldn't miss that doctor's appointment. What could I do?"

In February of this year, within weeks of being charged, his heart condition flared up. He was hospitalized for four days. His doctor said the stress was taking a toll.

"When I talked to him, he sounded terrible," Lambert says. "I really worry about what this has done to him. This man never took a dime for all the good he did. When we'd go out as a group for a meal, most of the time Bob didn't even have the price of the damned lunch because he spent all his money on animals." Anger blends with irony in her voice. "What more can you ask of a human being, for crying out loud?"

For legal help, Farner went to attorney Joseph Adelizzi of Vista. Farner had little money, but Adelizzi took the case for a $1,500 retainer because he believed in him. "A good person can get caught under the wheels of the system," Adelizzi says. "Most people don't have the emotional stamina to maintain the fight. It's devastating. Even when the government makes a mistake, and they do, the defendant still has to pay a lawyer and endure the legal process. So, when you put a man like Bob Farner in that position: elderly, poor health and fixed income, just imagine the effect of something like this."


NEWS OF THE CHARGES against Farner brought a furious reaction, especially from animal lovers. But it had a curious twist. "This is the first animal-cruelty case I've seen where people aren't on the animal's side," said Kathleen McManus, the deputy city attorney prosecuting the case, as it neared trial. "Everyone seems to be on the person's side. No one seems to care about that deer.

"He does have a lot of supporters," she continued, "but John Gotti had a lot of supporters too. So that's not really relevant. Based on his knowledge of animals, what he did to the deer was cruel."

Farner received letters and calls by the dozens, as did prosecutors. One teacher invited her sixth-grade students who had seen Farner's education program to write the city attorney's office pleading his cause. The response from McManus was a call to the school's principal questioning the propriety of allowing schoolchildren to be injected into a pending criminal matter.

Others chose to side against Farner. Gigi Bacon Theberge, spokeswoman for the Humane Society, says that the needs of the deer were more of an emergency than Farner's medical appointment. By picking it up, Farner agreed in a sense to care for it right away. "We were concerned that there was needless suffering by the deer."

Chuck Traisi, director of the Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Ramona, is bothered that the dogs were in the van. "The issue with the deer is that it stayed in the van for several hours, plus the fact he had his dogs with him. And even though the dogs wouldn't hurt it, the deer didn't know that."

"Bob carries those dogs with him wherever he goes," Lambert counters. "I've gone to the back of his van to get an injured animal out, and those dogs weren't anywhere near it. I've never seen Bob be cruel to anything. He might be a bit neglectful because of age and the medication he's on, but cruel, never. I've seen him drive down here in the middle of the night on a motorcycle, because his car was broken, with little baby possums in his shirt to keep them warm."

Farner says his dogs are gentle and well fed. "They wouldn't touch that deer, and they didn't." As for Theberge's comment about his medical appointment, he says, "Was she saying the deer's life was more important than my own?"

Al Hansen, principal of the Fox Outdoor School of the county office of education, describes Farner as "a sweet guy who has given his heart to this program. The kids love him. Can I conceive of him being cruel? Never, never. He's dedicated his life to animals. He must seem like an easy guy to pick on. But I don't understand why. I think he's sort of a fall guy."

Hansen isn't the only person unable to understand why prosecutors seemed so determined. Logan Jenkins, a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist who wrote extensively about the case, suspects it arose from rivalry between wildlife groups. "There's a finite amount of funding for these organizations, and Farner has been successful at fund-raising," Jenkins says. "Also, some of the groups believe that if an animal cannot be rehabilitated, it should be euthanized immediately. Bob keeps them alive and uses them for educational purposes. That's a sore point. Bob was considered an irresponsible custodian of animals by some of the rehabilitation people who thought he should be run out of business."

At the state Department of Fish and Game, which has the most muscle when it comes to wildlife law enforcement, Lt. Joseph Baima says Farner "has no problems with the department. There is nothing in his file that reflects any kind of discredit on him or his organization." Baima adds that Farner agreed to relinquish his rehabilitator's permit in the mid-'90s because he was found in possession of several small wild animals without permits, although no misuse or mistreatment was alleged.

Even Traisi doubts the wisdom of prosecuting Farner. "That man would never knowingly do anything to harm an animal. I think it maybe was a matter of poor judgment, possibly attributable to age and health problems." Traisi also wonders about the origins of the investigation, which police say began after a routine review of the police report about the wounded deer. "Every day and every night, deer, coyotes, bobcats and other animals are hit by cars. Are you telling me that those all become police reports? Someone was out to get Bob, but there's nothing to get. He discontinued rehabilitation years ago."

The Humane Society participated in the investigation, but Theberge says it was at the request of the police. In fact, she says Farner has a clear record with the Humane Society, except for two minor complaints years ago.

Yoder, the game warden at Camp Pendleton, says he did not make any complaint after Farner brought the deer to be destroyed. "I'm not a veterinarian, so I can't say exactly what its condition was, but I can say this: Bob's heart is genuinely good when it comes to animals."

Farner acknowledges that he could not legally pick up the deer because he had given up his rehabilitation permit. Even so, he says, "Back since '98, the police and Fish and Game called me two other times to come pick up deer to feed my mountain lion. Once on Route 52, and once in Mira Mesa. The Fish and Game guy shot 'em on the spot. Golly, if I'm not supposed to pick 'em up, why do they call me?"

Although the officers at the scene that day believed the deer could be saved, they did not call for a veterinarian. Instead, about three hours after the animal was struck, it was turned over to a man whom police called to remove it to feed his mountain lion. No check was made of his credentials to do so.

Why did Farner pick up the deer when he should have known his permit didn't cover that activity? Farner admits that he's not the "rehabber" he once was. "Darn right, my age and health have taken a toll. I don't deny that." But as more than one friend implies, Farner is a straight-ahead guy. So when the police called him to come pick up a dying deer, that's what he did. "I just wanted to do what I could; help when I was asked," he says.


WITH THE TRIAL APPROACHING, Farner recalls being told by a supporter, "Bob, everyone who knows you is behind you." He replied, "How many people know me? A few hundred? How many thousands only know I've been accused of mistreating animals?"

He became convinced that the only way to clear his name was to have the facts come out at trial. Attorney Adelizzi says the prosecutor made a settlement offer soon after charges were filed. It entailed a guilty plea, probation and a nominal fine. Farner rejected it.

Public pressure was helping his cause. San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater, a local powerhouse who can click on light bulbs in political heads, joined the issue. "I've known him since '85, when I was an elementary school teacher," Slater says. "One day, my daughter and I found a struggling bird on the beach. I put it in a towel and took it home, then called various agencies, but no one knew what to do. I called Bob. He said 'bring it out,' which I did, and he took care of it. He is a gentle, worthwhile human being. I consider the charges against him the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. I wish we had more Bob Farners." Slater wrote letters and has since introduced a proclamation before the county board praising Farner's contribution.

Finally, on May 24, seven weeks before the scheduled trial, City Atty. Casey Gwinn, considered an inside choice for U.S. Attorney in San Diego under President Bush, met with Farner and his lawyer to work out a mutual statement--in effect, a concession to drop the case with no penalties. It says, "Both sides agree that there was a basis to file charges based on allegations made in the original police reports."

Gwinn then retreated from the case and left further comments to Susan Heath, assistant city attorney for criminal prosecution, who was at the settlement meeting. (McManus will no longer take phone calls.) Heath says she does not consider Farner's acceptance of the statement to be a guilty plea. "Mistakes were made on both sides, and Mr. Farner had done things, and the case had been handled in such a way that could have been handled better," she says. "Because of his long, long service to animals and educating people about them, we gave him the benefit of the doubt."

That isn't good enough for Farner. "I know in my heart that I did nothin' wrong, but weasel words like that are gonna make some people think I abuse animals." He says it leaves the impression that he had done something wrong and that he was being forgiven out of pity. He was tempted to turn down the settlement, but he already faced pretrial lawyer's fees of $14,000, and his health was a large concern. "It's an awful thing when you've got to choose between clearing your name and protecting your health," he says.

Although Adelizzi isn't pressing Farner to pay his legal bill, Farner compares his treatment to his time as a war prisoner. "In prison, I knew what to expect from the Japanese, but this is a free country. I fought for this country in two wars, and now they treat me like a criminal. They left a cloud over my reputation. That ain't right."

Recent Photos of Fred, Family and Friends

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