“We don’t condone it by any means”
The shooting of a pet dog at a campsite last week has sparked many concerned citizens in the Crested Butte community to speak out against animal cruelty. Yet without adequate evidence the police have little to base a case on and whoever pulled the trigger will likely get away with aggravated animal cruelty, a class 6 felony in the state of Colorado.
St. Louis, Missouri resident Debbi Pipkin was camping with her dog, Nakoa, a 100-plus pound Alaskan Malamute, in Washington Gulch last week, as she had in the Crested Butte area for 10 years. Nakoa was shot and killed by an unknown individual at dusk on Monday, July 28.
Several other campers were in the same area, presumably to attend the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous, an event sponsored by the East River Free Trappers Club that celebrates the lifestyle of fur traders and early explorers of the 19th century.
Club organizer Mike Raterman says a few people who had come in for the event were set up early, but they weren’t members of the East River Free Trappers Club. “The club and people involved weren’t set up out there yet,” he says.
Although reports differ, it is agreed that at some point Nakoa left his owner’s campsite to check out the surroundings. The dog apparently went into a nearby campsite, 200 to 300 yards away, and began looking for food. Pipkin says she called the dog for several minutes, but it did not return. She then heard a gunshot and began searching for her dog, but could not locate it. The dog’s body was discovered the next day by members of Paradise Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), who had come to the scene.
Raterman says some of the campers indicated that the dog was being a nuisance, and was stealing food and urinating on several of the campers’ tepees.
Later on Tuesday, Pipkin contacted the Mt. Crested Butte police to investigate the situation. Police chief Hank Smith says his department spent a good deal of time trying to identify the shooter, and questioned a number of people camped out in the area or involved with the Mountain Man Rendezvous.
Smith says there were up to 15 people going to and from the camp area when they arrived. Pipkin and the PAWS members pointed out the two individuals as possible shooters, but Smith says, “As much as we tried to determine if they were the only two people involved, it was impossible to determine.”
Smith says the shooter would have been charged with animal cruelty. “Clearly the dog didn’t need to be killed. Nobody claimed it was being vicious. The only description we had was it was an annoyance. It may have eaten food or been marking its territory. But that’s not a reason to kill a dog,” Smith says.
Raterman agrees and says, “We don’t condone it by any means. It was a tragic thing.”
“After a lot of hours we concluded we could not develop the evidence we needed to file a criminal charge, although we have people we regarded as suspects,” Smith says. Smith says another witness, or one of the campers actually confessing who did it, could have filled in the missing pieces to the puzzle. “Short of those two things happening we do not have probable cause. We have our own suspicions, but you’re not allowed to prosecute somebody based on suspicion,” Smith says.
The U.S. Forest Service, which issued a special event permit allowing the Mountain Man Rendezvous to take place on Forest Service lands, is not investigating. Outdoor recreation planner Ray Rossman says the shooting occurred before the permit was effective and the Forest Service does not have enough information to connect the other campers in the area with the event. “It was an isolated event that occurred outside the scope of the permit prior to the event occurring,” Rossman says. The special permit ran from August 1 to August 4.
Rossman says discharging a firearm in a national forest is not illegal, so long as the gun holder follows appropriate state regulations. “As long as they’re not shooting at or endangering people, there’s no restriction,” Rossman says.
One law that was violated, Raterman points out, is the dog should have been leashed. In unincorporated Gunnison County all dogs must be leased, even on Forest Service lands. “Dogs are not supposed to be running free on Forest Service property. They have to be leashed at all times. We have to enforce that at our Rendezvous,” Raterman says.
Smith says the club members are very upset the dog was killed. “They felt this gave the organization a black eye.” Smith says in the many years the festival has been held, “I can’t think of a single problem they’ve had that needed our attention.”
Pipkin doesn’t feel the Mountain Man Rendezvous or the local members of the East River Free Trappers club are really the ones at fault. “I think they just have a bad apple,” she says.