Cowboy turned humane investigator had a long, wild ride
Robert “Bob” King Hillman, 71, an often controversial humane professional for more than 39 years, died on January 30, 2016 at his home in Henderson, Nevada, six weeks before what would have been the 46th anniversary of his marriage to Peggy Casper Hillman.
“My dad passed away quietly and peacefully. My mom, my brother Cody and I were with him holding his hand,” posted grandson Robb Hillman to Facebook.
Originally from Idaho, descended from Mormon homesteaders, and a western history buff who later in life often spoke to gatherings about his Mormon heritage, Robert Hillman joined the U.S. Army just as the Vietnam War escalated.
A Vietnam veteran, who long battled post-traumatic stress issues, Hillman debuted in humane work in 1974, hired by then-Marion County Humane Society executive director Warren Cox to help investigate horse and cattle abuse in local rodeos.
It was in that capacity that Cox and Hillman first exposed and opposed alleged cruelty at the Pendleton Rodeo, more recently a frequent target of undercover video exposés by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness. Speaking out against the Pendleton Rodeo, Cox recalls, cost both of them their jobs.
NACA founding member
Remaining in humane work, Hillman became a member of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators in 1976, and a founding member of the National Animal Control Association in 1979, for which he later served as a board member, 1998-1999.
(See also Animal control: What’s it all about? asked Mike Burgwin.)
“I’ve lost count of how many places Bob worked,” recalled longtime friend and fellow NACA cofounder Phil Arkow. “When I first met him, in 1977, he was with the Sacramento SPCA. He later moved on to Visalia, California, and Pasco, Washington.
“There were other stops along the way in an illustrious career in national and local animal welfare work. Bob always had a smile,” Arkow said, “and a passionate dedication to the humane cause, and an abiding interest in helping to mentor the next generation of humane leaders.”
By August 1981 Hillman was executive director of the Benton-Franklin Humane Society, in Kennewick, Washington, and caught in the middle of a heated dispute between a couple who had adopted a coyote as a pet, city officials who had licensed the coyote, and a state wildlife agent.
The coyote had escaped from the couple’s yard, only to be impounded by the humane society nearly two weeks later while visiting a distant neighbor’s yard.
Hillman had notified the wildlife agent that the coyote had been captured, as was required by a year-old state law pertaining to wildlife, instead of holding the coyote for 72 hours, as would have been required had the coyote been a dog. The wildlife agent then came to the shelter and shot the coyote.
Said Hillman, “A coyote is a wild animal. You can call him Fido, put a collar on him, and feed him dog meat, but he’ll never be a dog.”
Accused of favoring the interests and perspectives of coyote-hating ranchers, Hillman two years later ran afoul of the ranchers for expressing extreme misgivings about a 1983 wild horse roundup on the Hanford nuclear reservation. Had the horses been on Bureau of Land Management property, they would have been offered for adoption, as required by the 1971 Wild Free Ranging Horse & Burro Protection Act. Because the horses were on other public land, they could be sold immediately to slaughter.
Animal Protection Institute
Hillman’s work on behalf of wild horses attracted the notice of Animal Protection Institute founder Belton Mouras. 1924-2014.
(See also Animal rights movement pioneer Belton Mouras, 90.)
Mouras hired Hillman as API chief investigator and program director, shortly before Mouras was ousted from the Animal Protection Institute by a 1986 internal coup d’etat and went on to found United Animal Nations, now called Red Rover.
Omak Suicide Race
Hillman remained with the Animal Protection Institute for nearly 10 years. Among his most publicized campaigns was leading opposition to so-called “bloodless bullfights” held in the Cow Palace, a San Francisco exhibition hall, in 1987.
Hillman also helped to lead opposition to the Omak Suicide Race, held four times annually in Omak, Washington. Introduced by local rodeo promoter Claire Pentz in 1935, the Suicide Race was hyped as a revival of an allegedly traditional Native American pastime held at a site submerged in 1933 by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. The race consists of riders galloping horses over a steep cliff and across the Okanogan River as the main event on each of the four days of the Omak Stampede.
At least 21 horses are known to have been killed during runnings of the Omak Suicide Race since 1983.
While Hillman managed to rally nationwide opposition to the Suicide Race, it continues with little change.
Fought BLM “fee waiver” program
Hillman was likewise frustrated in repeated efforts to win reform of Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro adoption procedures, which in the 1980s sent thousands of horses to slaughter through “adopters” who obtained title to the horses at no cost to themselves through a “fee waiver” program.
“We want to see the horses protected, as the law requires,” Hillman told media. “They should be left on the range, as part of the American heritage for all time.”
Hillman argued that public lands were overgrazed by cattle and sheep, not horses, and that the cattle and sheep herds should be reduced.
Nellis Air Force Range
Also while at the Animal Protection Institute, Hilliman helped to expose wild horse starvation on the 400,000-acre Nellis Air Force Range, at that time reputedly home of the largest wild horse herd in the world.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Nellis Range harbored 6,200 wild horses in July 1990, but only 4,300 a year later, after hundreds and perhaps thousands died of thirst and starvation during a prolonged drought that cut the carrying capacity of the range to an estimated 1,500 horses.
10,000 gallons a day
The Air Force and the Nevada Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses saved the remaining horses by trucking in food, antibiotics, and 10,000 gallons of water a day.
In July and August 1991, the Bureau of Land Management removed 2,000 horses from Nellis, at cost of $500,000. Hillman, the Air Force, the horse rescuers, and the Public Lands Resource Council all disputed the BLM horse population figures, however, and the true extent of the 1990-1991 crisis was never established to the satisfaction of all the involved parties.
Bears, pumas, hounds & bait
In 1993, toward the end of Hillman’s tenure at the Animal Protection Institute he was approached by hunting guide Donald Scott Dungey, according to an Oregon State Police investigative report. Dungey, of Medford, Oregon, said “he wanted to help pass a law banning the hunting of bears and cougars with the use of hounds or bait,” summarized Mark Freeman of the Medford Mail Tribune.
“Dungey said he was involved in the killing of 52 black bears in Jackson County in 1992 alone,” Freeman continued, “and that something needed to be done or there would be no bears left in Oregon, according to Hillman’s statement to police.
“Would be killed in a heartbeat”
“Dungey also told Hillman that he would be killed in a heartbeat if Dungey’s friends found out he was helping outlaw hound-hunting, the report states.”
Dungey offered to sell Hillman “videos, photos and other information about illegal and legal methods used by bear and cougar hunters,” Freeman wrote.
The Animal Protection Institute brought the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Oregon Humane Society into the deal. They paid Dungey $9,000.
“Hillman told police that Dungey supplied one hunt video in which a bear was killed after being tracked by hounds,” Freeman wrote. “Dungey also showed Hillman several illegal bait stations used to attract bears, and––with his identity hidden––was interviewed by a Portland television station about negative aspects of bear and cougar hunting.
“The coalition agreed to keep Dungey’s identity a secret.”
Oregon voters in 1994 passed Measure 18, a ballot initiative that banned hunting pumas and bears with hounds. It was the first political victory of note for then newly hired HSUS legislative director Wayne Pacelle, who a decade later ascended to the HSUS presidency.
But the video Dungey provided “was never used in the pro-Measure 18 media campaign,” Oregon Humane Society executive director Sharon Harmon told Freeman. Harmon herself was not involved in the deal with Dungey, learning of it only after she was promoted to lead the Oregon Humane Society in 1996.
By then the Oregon State Police and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service were already investigating Dungey and had discovered the contract that he had signed with HSUS, the Oregon Humane Society, and the Animal Welfare Institute. Dungey was in 1998 convicted of 10 felony poaching counts. His son John Dungey was convicted of one related misdemeanor.
Albuquerque Animal Services
Post-Animal Protection Institute, Hillman beginning in 1997 spent five years working to professionalize Albuquerque Animal Services.
Soon after Hillman arrived in Albuquerque, a King Royal Circus elephant named Heather died in an overheated, poorly ventilated trailer that an employee left in the parking lot of a hotel where by fluke the Albuquerque Zoo was holding its annual meeting.
A police bicycle patrol noticed the truck swaying and investigated in time to save two other elephants and eight llamas from the overheated vehicle. Hillman brokered a deal that retired the surviving elephants to the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque.
The King Royal Circus case, however, was among Hillman’s few successes at an agency where, Hillman said, “Some people have been doing things just the way they want to for quite a long time, often 15 years or more, with no professional animal care-and-control supervision. My predecessor, James Bias,” who affirmed Hillman’s description of the situation, “was the first professional animal care-and-control person Albuquerque ever had in charge of Animal Services, and he was here only 10 months.
“Before James,” Hillman added, “Albuquerque Animal Services was always headed by senior city employees who transferred in from other departments, with a management background maybe, but never in animal care. They’d each be here for their last few years before retirement, and then they would leave and someone else would come in, starting over from scratch.”
“Only person who can be fired is me”
Almost the entire 75-to-78-member Albuquerque Animal Services staff was––and is still––protected by union seniority. Different unions represent the animal control officers, the clerical staff, and the kennel workers.
Even employees with little tenure at Animal Services often transfer in with long tenure and union protection accumulated in other city departments.
“The only person here who can easily be fired or demoted is me, Hillman said. “I have no contract.”
Guidelines & training
Hillman emphasized training and retraining personnel to the point of spending much of his first 18 months in Albuquerque producing a 216-page volume entitled General Operating Guidelines for all Albuquerque Animal Services Division staff.
But the updated guidelines were printed only a few days before the arrival of a Humane Society of the U.S. shelter inspection team, hired at instruction of the Albuquerque District Court, in settlement of a lawsuit brought by local activist Marcy Britton.
The team included then-HSUS Animal Services Consultation Program manager Sally Fekety; HSUS northwest regional director Dave Pauli; former HSUS south-central regional director Jim Tedford; publicist Karen Allanich; and consultants Penny Cistaro and Rebecca Rhoades, DVM, the latter the author of The HSUS Humane Euthanasia Training Manual.
Catch poles & “heart sticks”
Two months after visiting the Albuquerque shelters, HSUS released to news media a 57-page report faulting almost every aspect of Albuquerque Animal Services animal handling and killing.
Excessive use of catch poles, one of Britton’s leading complaints, appeared to be the most often observed problem.
The headline item, however, was that seven out of 28 animals who had supposedly been dead for 35 minutes after receiving lethal injections to the heart, in itself an obsolete procedure, reportedly still had heartbeats.
The findings outraged Albuquerque mayor Jim Baca. Earlier, as New Mexico public lands commissioner, Baca in 1972 threw USDA Animal Damage Control trappers off of state property because they were not required to check their traps daily. Baca suspended Hillman for two weeks, fired 15-year shelter vet Jan Thompson, and shifted four other senior staffers to other city departments.
Hillman’s immediate superior, Sarah Kotchian, Albuquerque director of environmental health since 1997, resigned 19 days later “to spend time with her family and pursue other interests,” according to an official statement.
Hillman’s position was eliminated in June 2002 by budget cuts.
More than a decade later, Albuquerque Animal Services continues to be frequently engulfed in controversy and chaos. Six-year Albuquerque Animal Services chief Barbara Bruin was transferred to other duties at the end of October 2015, after “ “Three separate city investigations released over the past four months found the Animal Welfare Department adopted out or sent to other animal rescue groups aggressive or problematic dogs, despite the dogs’ histories of having bitten people or hurt or killed pets,” summarized Albuquerque Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild.
Animal Foundation of Nevada
Relocating to Nevada, Hillman in November 2002 stepped in for several months as interim executive director of the Animal Foundation of Nevada, after founder Mary Herro retired. The Animal Foundation facilities included a sterilization clinic, opened in 1988, and the Lied Animal Shelter, opened in February 2001 to handle animal control impounds for the city of Las Vegas.
Succeeding both Herro and Hillman was former journalist Janie Greenspun Gale. Under Gale, the Lied Animal Shelter was expanded in 2003 to also hold impounded animals for Clark County and the city of North Las Vegas.
Attempting to go “no kill,” against Hillman’s advice, while handling intakes of 200 or more animals per day, the shelter was in February 2007 obliged to euthanize more than 1,000 of the 1,800 dogs and cats in custody to control simultaneous outbreaks of parvovirus, distemper, panleukopenia, and a bacterial infection that caused a fatal hemorrhagic pneumonia in both cats and dogs, which had not previously been found in an animal shelter.
Dave Pauli says
RIP and safe final travels Bob. I followed Bob as an E.D. at the Benton Franklin Humane Society and had occasional exposure to him in NACA, SAWA , API and was part of a team that evaluated his facility in New Mexico. As stated in this good summary article Bob was not without controversy…but he always maintained an open dialogue, listened well and was not afraid to “speak his onions” ( say what he was thinking) . I never met Bob anywhere where we did not share a warm handshake and a hearty discussion about what could be done to help animals. In the end Bob Hillman always pursued what he thought was in the best interest of the animals and community he was working in.
Eric Mills says
R.I.P., Bob! One of the pillars of our movement, and an inspiration for the rest of us. We shoulda had you cloned. Heartfelt thanks for all your good work over the many years. You will be missed. Condolences to your family and friends.
Eric Mills, coordinator
ACTION FOR ANIMALS
Warren Cox says
This is a great piece and while it doesn’t cover a fraction of the good things that Bob did, it does give tribute to some of the things he did do. He was dedicated, and like me, it got him in a lot of trouble. Thanks, Merritt and Beth, for the article and also what you have done and continue to do to help the animals and to expose the many wrongdoings. Keep it up!
Annoula Wylderich says
Thank you for this and your many other well-researched articles. As a Las Vegas animal advocate, I was not aware of this gentleman’s impact in our community nor of his recent passing.