It’s been a month since Storm Titan dumped more than 6 inches of rain on the longing earth.
As quickly as that storm came and went, so did news of an incident that resulted in 25 dead sheep. But while the storm quickly left, the controversy surrounding those ovine corpses didn’t, putting a prominent local rancher on thin legal ice and prompting members of a proud industry to collectively hold their hats
It started when a resident of Heritage Ranch—a sprawling, rural gated community by Nacimiento Lake, west of Paso Robles—was out hiking along the community’s green belt on Friday, Feb. 28, after the first night of rain, and came across bunches of sheep huddled on the ground and beside bushes in a ravine near a field where they’d been kept to graze. Some of the animals were dead; others appeared to be ill. A few had rumens—part of the digestive tract—exposed from their rears. Hiker Adam Weissmuller and his wife, Jennifer, returned to capture videos on a cell phone and posted them to YouTube in the days following the discovery, while maintaining a dialog with local authorities. Another video shows the rancher, Jean “JB” Jaureguy, and two other men loading sickly and dead sheep into a stocker trailer before hauling them away.
The sheep in question were part of a 700-head flock that Heritage Ranch managers allow to graze in the area for fire suppression, and part of Jaureguy’s total operation of about 8,500 sheep, according to a statement issued by law enforcement agents.
The videos went viral, and most of the local media outlets reported on the incident. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department is conducting an investigation into whether the sheep died from natural and unavoidable causes, or whether criminal neglect or cruelty was involved.
Defense attorney Jeff Stein, recently hired by Jaureguy, described in a statement to New Times his client’s “well-earned reputation” for his stewardship and his respect “for the care and treatment his animals receive, and the robust condition of the animals he raises.”
“No brief video, taken at a difficult moment, can provide an accurate picture of a rancher’s dedication to his animals,” Stein wrote. “The uncertainties and hardships that nature imposes clearly teach the lesson that not all events can be controlled.”
The sheriff’s office won’t comment on the particulars of the matter because it’s the subject of an ongoing investigation, so whether and when findings will be handed over to the District Attorney’s office to consider pursuing charges is unclear.
But officials in Monterey, Kern, and SLO counties all say they’ve never seen anything like this, and that criminal investigations into livestock deaths are rare. Commander Jim Taylor with the SLO Sheriff’s Department told New Times that investigators have already traveled through all three counties to see different flocks kept by Jaureguy, assessing the overall health of his sheep as one part of the challenging investigation.
Some critics have theorized that the sheep were distressed and sick because of a recent shearing; many people in the industry pointed out to New Times that shearing this time of year is normal, and that the migratory shearing crews must be booked months—if not a year—in advance, so the wool comes off on schedule.
Though the widespread attention generated from the video drew comments and condemnations directed at both the rancher and the Weismullers, the lingering question facing the Sheriff’s Rural Crimes Unit is whether the deaths were preventable, and how they relate to industry statistics of acceptable death rates. Some members of the livestock industry have weighed in, claiming that accidents happen and incidents like this are a normal—albeit tragic—reality of the trade. Others, however, have said that from what they can tell, there’s no excuse for the deaths.
“Everyone I talked to, there’s pretty universal agreement that those sheep were starving,” said Robert Rutherford, a recently retired sheep specialist from Cal Poly’s Animal Sciences Department. “They had been going down in this condition for some time.”
New Times contacted several people in the ranching business for context and comment, and opinions differed. Some spoke of the Jaureguy family’s reputation as honest and hard working, and pointed out that there would be no reason for him or anyone to let this happen, because at the bottom line rests a financial incentive to keep the sheep alive. The public attention has also hit a nerve within an industry that already feels that public scrutiny and regulations over animal treatment have made turning a profit that much more difficult, and would just as soon keep their affairs private.
Hank Volger, a Nevada shepherd who runs a flock similar in size to Jaureguy’s, said this is a situation where public scrutiny has taken things out of context.
“Every day in the chicken houses they have a chicken die,” Volger told New Times. “There’s just a plethora of different factors that could have tipped [the sheep] over.
“We have become such a touchy feely society that we’ve about thrown the baby out with the bathwater,” he continued. “The definitive word in livestock is ‘live,’ and anything that is alive will die, and sometimes at the most inopportune moment.”
As eager as Volger was to go to bat for the industry, he still doesn’t completely discount wrongdoing. He speculated that if there’s anything in Jaureguy’s past to indicate that this wasn’t an isolated incident, that information will come out.
“But I bet those marbles are chalk,” he said.
Another local rancher who spoke with New Times on condition of anonymity wasn’t so forgiving, saying: “The condition of those animals didn’t occur in a couple of days or in a storm. What you’re looking at, there is no excuse for, there is no excuse for.”
Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay