Trial of North San Juan man accused in bear cub case gets under way
March 22, 2013
A North San Juan man accused of killing a mother bear said he shot the sow because he was in fear for his life and took its two cubs to a gas station to give away because he wanted to find them a good home.
Christopher Puett has been charged with unlawful possession of a restricted animal, harassing an animal, unlawful taking of a bear and the taking of a female bear with cubs; his trial got under way in Nevada County Superior Court Tuesday morning.
Puett's public defender, Peter Barruso, told the jury his client was known as "Cat Man" locally because he loves animals and had been caring for about 20 cats on the property.
"He's not a bad guy," Barruso said, saying Puett shot the mother bear in self-defense.
Neighbor Donna Natali, however, said Puett was an animal hoarder whose animals are sick.
"He's not a caregiver to animals," she said.
Natali testified she was aware of the mother bear and her cubs and that they had never bothered her. She added that Puett had threatened to shoot the mother bear "multiple times" and had complained that bears were trying to kill his cats.
She agreed with a characterization of her relationship with Puett as adversarial, saying that he screams obscenities all day, had dismantled her water line and built a fence on another neighbor's property.
California Fish and Wildlife warden Lt. John Lawson testified that he responded to the gas station in North San Juan June 6, 2012, after an anonymous caller reported a man trying to sell bear cubs.
Puett was not there but was located on the property where he was living in a tent trailer. The cubs, which weighed about 15 pounds each, were in a cage in the bed of his pickup truck, Lawson said.
According to Lawson, Puett told him he had been having problems with the bear and that he had shot it with birdshot on one occasion and then with rock salt. Puett said that on June 4, he had heard scuffling and had yelled at the bear, which charged him. He told Lawson after he shot the bear, it ran off.
Lawson testified that there were about 200 pounds of dog and cat food "in piles all over the place." He said he advised Puett that the food was attracting bears and that he needed to clean it up but that Puett told him he was too busy.
Lawson told the jury that he asked to see the carcass of the mother bear and that Puett changed his story several times, initially telling him it was buried in a canyon, then on a friend's property, before finally saying he had no idea where the bear was. Lawson said wardens searched for the carcass, even using a K-9, but never located it.
The next day, Lawson said, Puett told him he had shot the bear from inside his tent trailer. But Lawson said a ding on the side of an abandoned freezer, consistent with the freezer having been hit by a shotgun shell, did not match a trajectory from the trailer.
Lawson said he recovered a small piece of animal flesh next to the freezer, which was sent for analysis; a wildlife forensic specialist later testified the flesh was from a female bear and matched DNA with blood samples taken from the cubs.
The bear cubs were transferred to a wildlife rehabilitation center in South Lake Tahoe and were reintroduced into the wild approximately a month ago.
Puett testified that he had experienced problems before, telling the jury bears had entered his residence twice in the past.
He said the night he shot the mother bear was the fourth night she had awakened him by coming onto the property and making a lot of noise, saying, "I didn't know why she was getting nasty."
On that fourth night, Puett said he saw the bear getting into a pile of dog food and that after he yelled, she "went over" the pile.
"I didn't want to shoot her," he said. "I had to … She was coming at me. I was scared to death."
Puett testified that he saw the bear flip over backwards and that he went outside, but she had gone.
He said he had no idea she had cubs until he heard them crying, and that he eventually snared the male cub; the female cub, he said, went into the cage on her own.
According to Puett, he called the Department of Fish and Game, which he said told him to either shoot the cubs or leave them there.
Fish and Wildlife biologist Sara Holm, however, testified there was no record of any call about a person having bear cubs. Holm also testified that she would never direct a caller to kill bear cubs.
Closing arguments in the case will be heard Wednesday morning.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.