WEST HAVEN — Shelly Rovira says she was rescuing a lost or abandoned Great Pyrenees, but a Cache County rancher says the dog is his, and Rovira now has been charged with two felonies.
Rovira is an animal rescue advocate in West Haven who participated in efforts to find the mother of three Great Pyrenees pups that were found in the Monte Cristo area of Weber County last December.
In several Facebook posts in late May, Rovira reported that she had found the dog in the Avon-Liberty Divide area and paid a ranch employee for it.
However, a local rancher, whose land is on the Cache County side of the divide, reported the dog stolen, leading to a Cache sheriff’s office investigation.
On Thursday in 1st District Court in Logan, the Cache County Attorney’s Office filed charges of theft and obstruction of justice, both third-degree felonies, against Rovira, 59.
In a larger sense, the case pits the interests of sheep ranchers, waging an eternal battle to keep predators away from their flocks, against those of animal rights groups who contend some ranchers mistreat or abandon the canine guardians.
In a Facebook post May 25, Rovira said she and a friend returned to an area where other searchers had spotted an emaciated sheepdog the day before.
It apparently was a great Pyrenees, and Rovira and the others believed it was the long-missing mother, who they called “Grace.”
Rovira talked to a ranch employee and showed him a picture of Grace and asked if he had her. The man, who spoke only Spanish, had them follow him, according to Rovira.
“He got ahead of us and I couldn’t see him anymore,” her post said. “All of the sudden we heard a dog barking and running towards us. We both turned and dropped to our knees. It was Grace, so thin, emaciated but running to us and barking as if she was saying, what the hell took you so long?”
She said they looked up the mountain and could no longer see the sheepherder, so they returned to the base of the mountain, where the man had left his backpack. They put $400 in the backpack and left with the dog.
“I want to keep Grace and have her be a part of my family if she is happy here,” she said in the post. “If she is not we will find her a farm somewhere where she has room to roam with another Pyrenees. It would break my heart for her to leave, but I love her and just want her to be happy after all she has been through.”
But the rancher became aware of social media posts about the supposed sale and contacted Rovira by text, according to the Cache sheriff’s probable cause statement.
The rancher told Rovira, “You have our Akbash dog,” but she rebuffed him, said he had no proof it was his dog and said not to contact her again, the affidavit said.
The rancher valued the dog at $1,500.
According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, the estimated first-year cost for a herd guardian dog is $1,000 with an annual cost of $500 thereafter.
A sheriff’s detective reported he contacted Rovira to say the dog was reported stolen and no sale was authorized.
“Shelly stated that she had paid $2,000 in vet bills for the dog,” the detective said in the affidavit.
The detective added, “I informed her for a second time that the dog is stolen property that needs to be returned to the owner. I also asked Shelly where the dog was. She stated that it was in a safe place. It was obvious that Shelly was concealing stolen property and intentionally depriving the owner of it.”
He said Rovira was adamant about it and told him “she would go to jail before giving up the dog.”
A woman who accompanied Rovira was interviewed by deputies. She said she had communicated with the sheepherder in Spanish, but she acknowledged he was not present when the dog was taken or the money put in the backpack.
That woman, too, said “she would rather be arrested than give up the dog.”
Rovira and other sheepdog advocates ally with nonprofit groups such as the Utah-based Coalition for Livestock Guardian Dogs.
“Hundreds of cases of severely emaciated and injured LGD have been documented by Utah shelters across the state and by good Samaritans,” the group says on its website.
However, the Utah Wool Growers Association says proper care of guardian dogs is a central topic in the industry’s best practices and standards and that it is stressed in professional development meetings with producers.
“They are an essential tool in our toolbox in the battle against predators,” Sierra Nelson, the association’s executive director, said by email Friday. “Utah’s bear and cougar populations have exploded and the coyotes are out of control.”
She said 33,700 sheep and lambs were killed by predators in 2018 for a loss of almost $5.8 million.
“Unfortunately, not everyone understands the scope of the role of livestock guardian dogs,” she said. “We have people steal dogs from the mountains because they don’t see the herd in sight (because the dog is returning from chasing a predator miles out of the herd) or because the dog is ‘so hungry’ because kind people offered them people food (aka candy) and the dogs gobbled it up,” Nelson said.
Sheep ranchers buy dog food by the pallet and semi load, not bag, Nelson said.
Reached by phone Friday, Rovira declined to discuss her case.
“My attorneys are going to handle it and I think everything will turn out fine,” she said.
Efforts to contact her attorney, Christian Hansen of Logan, were unsuccessful.
Hansen filed a motion in court Thursday asking that the arrest warrant for Rovira be recalled, because he is now representing her and will see that she appears in court.
Rovira has not been booked into jail and no court date has been set.