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Activist Not Guilty of Impeding Rat Killings

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. magistrate has found a Santa Barbara environmental activist not guilty of violating federal law two years ago, when he allegedly fed black rats on Anacapa Island vitamin pellets to counteract poison that park rangers dropped from helicopters to exterminate the rodents.

In a decision released Thursday, Magistrate Willard W. McEwen Jr. said 52-year-old Rob Puddicombe probably did illegally feed the rats and interfere with a National Park Service program by depositing pounds of vitamins around the island in October 2001.

But the magistrate found that prosecutors did not prove Puddicombe’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt during a half-day trial in Santa Barbara last month.

“It is with very mixed emotions that I find the defendant not guilty,” McEwen wrote in the decision. “There is a strong probability that the defendant committed this crime, but the evidence submitted [and admitted] did not serve to eliminate the doubt that remains in the mind of the [magistrate]....”

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Puddicombe, a bus driver who had faced up to a year in jail, said in a prepared statement that he was thrilled with McEwen’s decision.

“I only wish the animals on Anacapa could have gotten the same fair trial I did,” he said. “Now if we could just catch the people in the helicopter who dropped the poison.”

Puddicombe’s attorney acknowledged at trial that his client had been on the island, but insisted that he had not fed the rats.

Puddicombe, founder of the Channel Islands Animal Protection Assn., said in an interview last year that park rangers had no right to choose which animals should live and which should die.

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“I love underdogs, and rodents are the underdogs of the animal kingdom,” he said. “A mouse or rat is just as valuable as an elephant. It’s just as smart and has the same feelings.”

Prosecutors alleged that Puddicombe and an associate, Robert Crawford of Goleta, sailed an inflatable boat 11 miles across the Santa Barbara Channel to Anacapa and fed rats food laced with vitamin K. The substance would interfere with poison the park service used to prevent rats’ blood from clotting authorities said.

At trial, a witness, John Nick Todd, testified that he saw Puddicombe and Crawford on an island trail Oct. 24, 2001, and that one of them was seated and throwing something. But Todd, who was on the island to study birds, could not say which of the men was doing the throwing or what was being tossed.

“The only percipient witness to the alleged crime could not identify the alleged perpetrator, nor could [it] be established what, if anything, was being broadcast by the person’s ‘tossing’ motion,” the magistrate wrote. “It may well be that Mr. Crawford did feed the rats inasmuch as he plead[ed] guilty to the charge....”

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Nonetheless, the jurist said that if Puddicombe’s had been a civil case, and judged under a lesser standard of evidence, the federal government probably would have won.

The magistrate said several facts suggested Puddicombe’s involvement: his presence on the island, Todd seeing him or Crawford tossing pellets and noting the decreasing size of the men’s backpacks as the day wore on, the lack of any other visitors on the island that day and the likelihood that even if Crawford distributed the vitamins he must have been assisted by Puddicombe.

Still, the magistrate said he was not convinced of Puddicombe’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Crawford eventually pleaded guilty to feeding wildlife and interfering with agency functions. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, told to keep off the islands for two years and ordered to pay $200 in restitution, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. If convicted, Puddicombe would have faced a similar sentence, Mrozek said. “There was no way he was going to be sent to jail for a year.”

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Mrozek said prosecutors were disappointed by the magistrate’s ruling. But he insisted the case was worth prosecuting.

“We were very interested in getting out a message that it is illegal and potentially carries criminal ramifications for anyone to interfere with a government program,” he said.

In this case, he said, the government had spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours to wipe rats off Anacapa Island. “If only one rat had survived, it had the potential of completely nullifying the eradication program,” he said.

The rat eradication is apparently complete, Mrozek said, although federal officials have said they will not be certain for a year, until another breeding season passes.

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Park officials had said they needed to get rid of the rats, which are not native to the islands, to protect several native species, particularly a small seabird called the Xantus’ murrelet, whose eggs the rodents devour. For the first time in 74 years, a Xantus’ murrelet nest was found last month on an unprotected plateau of Anacapa. The discovery is credited to the eradication of rats.

Park service officials are trying to remove rats, pigs and golden eagles to restore the five-island Channel Islands National Park to its original condition.

Puddicombe has said the $2-million project to remove up to 3,000 rats from Anacapa’s three islets was an example of the park service demonizing, and then annihilating, an animal to return the islands to some murky, idealized past.

“It’s a topsy-turvy world when poisoning wildlife from helicopters is a good thing and feeding wildlife is a crime,” he said last year. “As far as I’m concerned, this is like ethnic cleansing; it’s a jihad against nonnative species.”

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Times staff writer David Kelly contributed to this report.


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