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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Overcast
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The death of a racoon
DNR came into home, killed woman's beloved pet
Nance Curtis with Idego in happier times.
Nance Curtis with Idego in happier times.

Nance Curtis thinks she knows what it's like to live in a police state. On Sept. 11, 2007, state wardens accompanied by cops "came into my home, against my will and without a warrant, went into my basement and slaughtered my baby."

Her "baby," it turns out, was a pet raccoon she raised from infancy. Curtis, a former city of Madison employee, says the same agency that killed him - the state Department on Natural Resources (DNR) - brought them together in the first place. Back in 2001, she says, it recruited her as a volunteer to pick up the orphaned animal from a farm outside Madison, and gave her permission "to try and take care of him."

The raccoon, named Idego, became a house pet, like Ellie Mae's critter in The Beverly Hillbillies. He would play hide-and-seek, eat peanut butter sandwiches, lie on his back to have his belly rubbed. She says he was never allowed outside and never bit anyone except her, when he was younger.

Pat Comfort, a Madison animal control officer, says keeping a raccoon is against state law as well as the city's exotic pets ordinance, passed in 2003. In December 2004, his records show, the city fielded two reports of scratches involving Curtis' pet. It tried without success to capture the animal, says Comfort, then called the DNR repeatedly to say: "Somebody's got a raccoon in their house. Do you care?" The DNR did not respond.

On Sept. 11, it did care. Conservation warden Tyler Strelow and a deputy warden arrived at Curtis' east-side Madison home. According to Strelow's detailed report (see this story at, Curtis "began crying and screaming" when told that she could not keep a pet raccoon. "You can't take him, he is like a baby to me," the report quotes her as saying. "You don't understand."

The visit was prompted by a call to the agency's hotline; the DNR won't say who called or what was imparted. Says DNR spokesman Greg Matthews, "The hotline clearly states that all information will be kept confidential." Curtis says the wardens claimed the animal had bitten someone, which she dubs "a malicious false complaint. They came in here based on a pack of lies."

Curtis' fiancé, Michael Gerl, took the wardens into the basement to show them the raccoon. He says he petted Idego to prove he was harmless, then asked the wardens to leave. Strelow's report says Gerl expressed fear about being bit. Gerl denies this: "I never said he would bite."

One by one, three Madison police officers were dispatched to the scene, to back up the DNR. Sgt. Steve Beavers, the last to arrive, says he lent the wardens a pole used to capture animals. He also tried talking the wardens out of their plan to remove the raccoon. What was their response? "Their response was 'No.'"

Curtis and Gerl began making frantic calls trying to find somebody to affirm that they could keep the animal. Strelow's report confirms this. But it also says Gerl let the two wardens and two officers into the basement to capture the raccoon. Gerl denies this, too: "I told them, 'I don't want you down there.'"

Strelow's report says that when the catch pole cable was placed around the animal's neck, it began to "violently thrash." So Strelow opted "to humanely dispatch the raccoon" by tightening the cable until it suffocated to death.

Sgt. Beavers, who remained upstairs, says the wardens and other officers left without talking to him. Curtis and Gerl discovered that Idego was missing, but did not learn of his death until the following evening, in a call from Jeremy Plautz, a DNR supervisor.

Matthews says the wardens didn't plan to kill the animal in the home, but adds, "It would have been euthanized anyway." Plautz's report asserts there were safety concerns because the animal "had bitten two people in 2004" - an inaccurate reference to the two people who were scratched.

The DNR's rules allow "placement in permanent facilities...for some non-releasable animals." Curtis thinks this means the DNR could have left Idego alone. Matthews says such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis; it's doubtful the agency would ever let a raccoon remain in a home.

When Curtis asked for the body to give Idego "a proper burial," Plautz told her it would be kept as evidence, according to his report. Both then accuse the other of hanging up.

With Godless on their side

Atheism, you may have heard, is hotter than ever - so hot that the Freedom from Religion Foundation's annual national convention, Oct. 12-14 at Monona Terrace and the Concourse, should be packed to the gills with the Darwin fish crowd. Registration for the conference and specific events is open through Monday, Oct. 8, and possibly beyond. See for details.

The marquee speaker, incendiary writer Christopher Hitchens, will appear Saturday, Oct. 13, at 2 p.m. Earlier that day, the group will present its First Amendment Award to Ellery Schempp, whose 1956 revolt against Bible reading in public school (he cracked open a copy of the Koran and got kicked out of class) sparked a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling and is the subject of a terrific new book, Ellery's Protest.

And on Friday, the world's best political columnist, Katha Pollitt of The Nation, will give a talk entitled "Atheism Is the New Black," followed by Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney. Pollitt will also appear at Room of One's Own on Saturday, 10 a.m.

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor reports other big news. Starting this Saturday, Oct. 6, the group's hour-long show, "Freethought Radio," will go national on Air America, with two guests: Hitchens and Jeremy Hall, a U.S. soldier suing the Pentagon for discriminating against nonbelievers. (Gaylor calls him "literally an atheist in a foxhole.") And this week, the group erected its first-ever billboard on the Beltline. Believe it or not.

What's required for rehired retired?

Joe Norwick retired last fall after 28 years with the Dane County Sheriff's Office. Recently, he landed a new job - working for Dane County, as head of its 911 communications center.

And yes, he is collecting a pension from the Wisconsin Retirement System, in addition to his $100,000 annual salary.

County spokeswoman Joanne Haas says Norwick is among a half-dozen retired county employees rehired into county jobs. The state fund's rules require that these "rehired annuitants" receive pensions on top of pay. The trade-off is that Dane County no longer makes payments into these workers' retirement accounts. In Norwick's case, that's a savings of $10,700 a year.

"It's not unique to the county," says Norwick, noting that other municipal and state workers opt for the same deal. "It's the state retirement system."

Pinching the disabled

Ron Kent calls it "terrible," "inadequate," "insulting," "shameful" and "disheartening." And then he explains why he voted for it.

A labor rep on the state's Worker's Compensation Advisory Council, Kent last month signed off on a plan to provide a slight increase - to 1992 levels - for people who ended up on permanent total disability years ago and whose payments have remained stagnant. He had hoped for a much more substantial boost (see "Will Disabled Workers Get Long-Delayed Raise?" 9/6/07), which even the worker's comp insurers supported, but the council's business reps would not go along.

"It was that or nothing," says Kent, who vows to keep fighting for those who cannot work because of work-related injuries. Keep your fingers broken - er, crossed.

Win-win situation

A rant to The Capital Times' "Sound Off" line, published this week: "If the $1.25 per pack cigarette tax goes through, I and my family and friends, numbering 36 right now, promise to vote for no Republican in local, state and national elections."

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