In sad moments of epiphany, Ruth Hurt revisits the events that seemed innocuous at first.
The red-tailed hawks that had taken up residence in a cottonwood tree in her yard for years were suddenly gone. The cacophony of birdsong emanating from around her Northwest Boise yard quieted. The rambunctious squirrels disappeared. Dead mice appeared in her yard. One day in early June, the family’s two dogs, Rue and Hash Brown, became ill.
When Hurt found Rue dead in her backyard a couple of weeks later, she started thinking about the odd events, not wanting to believe they were connected, suspecting the worst. A veterinarian’s autopsy of Rue verified Hurt’s suspicions: The dog had ingested a fatal amount of poison.
Hurt is convinced the poisoning came at the hands of a neighbor.
The culprit: Strychnine
Rue, a 1-year-old red-and-blue heeler mix, and Hash Brown, an 11-year-old Jack Russell terrier and dachshund mix, began vomiting and became lethargic on June 2. Hash Brown had several seizures, and his legs stiffened.
Hurt recalled that earlier in day she had noticed the two dogs licking the surface of a railroad tie in a neighbor’s yard. She inspected the site and found greenish-blue grains in an oily substance on the railroad tie. She collected about a dozen of the grains and began researching them online to identify them. She took a photograph of lethargic Rue and videos of Hash Brown’s seizures. Within several hours the dogs recovered, and she assumed the ordeal was over.
On June 20, Hurt walked onto her back porch and noticed Rue lying on the ground several feet away. The dog appeared to have collapsed. Hurt rushed over, picked her up and realized Rue was dead.
“I scooped her up and I just started screaming,” she said.
She asked her veterinarian, Dr. Tim Murphy, of Animals R Us in Boise, to perform an autopsy. Murphy’s report said Rue’s stomach contents contained “several teaspoons of blue-green seed granules.”
Hurt made a video of Murphy explaining to her that the grains were strychnine-laced gopher bait. “It is a grain made for rodents to eat,” Murphy said.
The poison was mixed with some kind of food and some pieces of meat fat.
“It was a huge lethal dose,” Hurt said. “I was desperately hoping it wasn’t poison, because I did not want to have to think about that — that somebody intentionally would put a massive amount of poison in meat or steak or whatever it is feed it to Rue.”
Based on the amount of poison, and that it was mixed with food, Hurt does not think it was intended for gophers or mice.
Lori Simmons, an Animals R Us veterinarian technician, told the Statesman that Rue is the first case of strychnine poisoning to come to the clinic since she started working there eight years ago. In her nearly 30 years working in veterinarian clinics, Simmons said, she has seen only one other case: a dog that died after eating a rodent that had ingested strychnine.
“I think some people think it was just my dog that got baited and poisoned,” Hurt said. “They do not realize there is the threat to other animals.”
Strychnine is toxic to humans, animals, birds and fish. Poisoning causes involuntary muscle spasms in both people and animals. Signs can begin within 15 minutes in people and within two hours in animals. Death is caused by impaired breathing.
“Most strychnine baits are considered a restricted-use pesticide,” said Chanel Tewalt, Idaho State Department of Agriculture chief of operations/communications. “They require a person to obtain an applicator license with ISDA, or the product must be applied by someone with such a license. There are a few products that are general-use pesticides that could be purchased by the public. Applicators must follow all label directions. … The mantra here is ‘the label is the law.’”
Under federal rules, strychnine-laced grains can be placed only below ground in gopher tunnels, not above ground.
Searching for answers
Hurt began to investigate into Rue’s poisoning. She photographed and videoed what she what found. She read up on the poisoned bait and went to several feed and hardware stores to see if any carried it. One did. She talked to the store manager, who explained it is illegal to use the bait above ground. He told her to call the police. She did.
She posted signs in the front yard of her home on Collister Drive north of Hill Road and distributed fliers around the neighborhood warning that poison was in the area. She reported her findings on her Facebook page. She collected some dead mice she found in her yard, labeled them and put them in her freezer. She became concerned for the safety of a deer she saw in the neighbor’s yard near the contaminated site.
On June 28, about one week after Rue’s death and a couple days after police had interviewed her and the neighbors, Hurt looked in the neighbor’s yard and saw more of the colored grains on the ground. Some were in a clear shallow plastic dish. “It is very easy to see, because they dye it a turquoise blue,” she said.
Hurt went into the neighbor’s yard, collected the dish and knocked on the neighbor’s door. No one answered.
She called the police and gave them the dish and its contents.
Later that day she confronted one of the neighbors, saying she found more poison in the yard. Hurt said the neighbor told her anyone could have put it there.
The neighbors did not answer the door or respond to a note the Statesman left at the door requesting an interview.
Hurt has filed complaints with the Boise police, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, FBI, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the State Department of Agriculture and Idaho Humane Society. She said several Boise police officers and an EPA investigator have come to her house. She is waiting to find out what, if anything, they plan to do.
Under state law it is illegal to poison an animal, whether a pet or farm animal. The State Department of Agricultural can investigate complaints pertaining to pesticides and can assess administrative or criminal penalties against violators, Tewalt said.
Boise Police Department spokesman Ryan Larrondo confirmed that an investigation is under way but said he could not provide further details. Tewalt said ISDA has been in contact with Boise police and will coordinate with them.
The EPA would not comment.
‘Damn, I loved that dog’
The houses near Hurt’s home on Collister Drive north of Hill Road have backyards that open onto the Foothills.
Hurt’s backyard has low fencing and a low wooden retaining wall set into the hillside. Rue at times would leave the yard to visit her “boyfriend,” a 2-year-old male Doberman named Rio owned by neighbor Justus Jones.
“Rue was happy, happy, happy. ... I called her my granddaughter,” Hurt said tearfully. “Damn, I loved that dog.”
The day Rue died, Rio started throwing up. Over the next two weeks, Rio was lethargic and had to be coaxed into eating, Jones said.
“It was clear something was off,” Jones said. “He has recovered, but it was scary for a bit.”
Jones said he “absolutely” thinks Rio ingested the same poison as Rue.
He, too, knocked on the suspect neighbors’ door and tried to talk to them about the poisonings. They called the police, saying he was trespassing. “They got really defensive and said there was no poison in their yard,” he said.
Jones keeps a close eye on Rio now. “There has been no inspection or clean-up,” he said.
He takes Rio to a dog park for romps instead of the Foothills in his backyard, because he is concerned more poison is out there.
“The hawks are gone. The squirrels are gone,” he said. “Rio loves watching the squirrels. They are gone. I found dead mice in our front yard. I’ve never found a dead mouse in the three years I have lived in this house. The poison has definitely caused some damage to the ecosystem here.”
Under Idaho law poisoning animals is a crime:
“Every person who willfully administers any poisonous substance to an animal, the property of another, or maliciously places any poisonous substance where it would be found by an animal or where it would attract an animal, with the intent that the same shall be taken, ingested or absorbed by any such animal, is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not exceeding three years, or in the county jail not exceeding one year, and a fine not less than $100 and or more than $5,000.”
—Idaho code 25-3503