Coralee Whitsett, a marine biologist currently managing the aquarium at the Point Cabrillo lighthouse north of Mendocino, has a surprising mission in life — raising Tibetan yaks. “What do you do with them?” is the most common question Whitsett hears when people first meet the yaks. The yaks actually are kept for multiple reasons, the primary ones being breeding, fiber collection and exhibitions. Yaks are extremely rare in the United States. They are bovines, indigenous to Tibet. Many of Whitsett's “yak-keeping” skills were learned first hand from exiled Tibetan nomads. Currently, Whitsett manages 19 “Royal” (black-and-white) and “Trim” (black) yaks in Mendocino on the California coast. One of her many endeavors with the yaks is to share them with their rightful owners, the Tibetan people. This is accomplished through Whitsett's traveling yak exhibition, which allows the yaks to come to Tibetan cultural events. “I consider myself a steward of the yak in America for the Tibetan people. My hope is that one day the Tibetan community will manage their own herd of yaks.” For the past two years, Whitsett's yaks have been the beloved stars of the Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC) school benefit. Whitsett trailers them to Berkeley and shows them wearing traditional Tibetan saddles and ornaments. Tibetans are always deeply moved at seeing these living symbols of their endangered culture. Yaks — traditionally considered the wealth of Tibetans — are highly valued as pack and riding animals as well as for milk, fiber, meat, and yak-dung fuel . “I have taken the yaks to Tibetan cultural events on the West Coast for over 10 years. In fact, they are an educational herd — I call them my 'yak ambassadors.” Whitsett's herd may well be the largest herd of tamed and trained yaks in the Unites States and the only herd used for Tibetan cultural heritage preservation. Sadly, most yaks raised in the US are crossbred with cattle and butchered to supply the alternative meat market.
Whitsett is also working to preserve the purebred yak in the United States. Purebred yaks could eventually become extinct in America due to restrictions which prohibit yaks from being imported to America. The Tibetan Yak Conservancy, a newly formed non-profit, hopes to identify, build, and manage core purebred breeding herds.
But now Whitsett's herd is in danger. Below, Whitsett recounts the circumstances that led to the loss of six of her prize yaks, “stolen” by an unscrupulous women in Southern California.
“In April of 2011, I sent six of my yaks to a woman in Tehachpai, California to be fostered. The woman had heard of me through a mutual acquaintenance. She claimed to have a “private zoo” of sorts which offered many educational programs for the public and wanted to add some yaks to her facility. I thought it would be a good opportunity to expose more people to the fact that there were yaks in the USA, as she was supposedly involved with many outreach programs. She referred me to her website to see pictures of her place. Animals wondered in pastures with green grass, trees and white fences. She signed the Yak Foster Care Agreement I had prepared and left with six of my yaks in tow.
About a month later, I realized that I had been duped; the address the woman had given me was a P.O. Box. I had no idea where the yaks actually went. Requests to be sent the physical location of the yaks were ignored. I also asked repeatedly for photographs of the yaks, as none had been sent showing were they were being kept.
In late August, the woman demanded the yaks be picked up. She claimed she had no time to send pictures or give me periodic updates on the yaks and their calves. If I did not pick them up in a week, she was going to start charging me an exorbitant amount of board! My partner Woody scurried to ready his rig for the long trip. He had absolutely no clue where the animals were other than knowing they were somewhere around Tehachapi. Once he arrived in Tehachapi, he went from business to business, asking the whereabouts of the little known “zoo.” Incredulously, he stumbled on an employee at a tire shop that knew where it was! When Woody arrived to pick up the yaks, he found the woman had padlocked the gate to her property the gate to the yak's pen. She refused to release them, and a bill for thousands of dollars for her costs was shoved at Woody. This bill would have to be paid before the yaks were released, she demanded. Woody drove back to Tehachapi and found a sheriff who followed him to the remote property, totally in the middle of nowhere. In actuality, the woman’s facility was only 13 mils from Mojave, CA, one of the hottest spots in the U.S.!
Woody showed the sheriff the demand letter to have the yaks picked up and the Foster Care Agreement, signed by both myself and the woman. The Agreement clearly stated that I owned the yaks exclusively and that the woman was responsible for all costs associated with her fostering the yaks. The sheriff looked at the documents, spoke to the woman in private, then gave Woody the bad news. Alas, this was a “civil matter” and I would have to have a court order to retrieve the yaks.
The conditions the yaks were living in were deplorable. Woody was shocked to find them locked in a small, blistering-hot sand pen with little shade. Only a water tub and salt block where the pen of six yaks. Not even a wisp of hay could be found for the yaks to nibble on to help pass the hours of their monotonous existence in this living hell. (Yaks can not tolerate high heat. When temperatures get in the upper 90's, yaks pant, just like dogs and become heat stressed. In Tibet, yaks live above 13,000 feet.) Woody returned home with an empty trailer. I set about trying to find an animal welfare attorney that would take on my case pro bono, as I could not afford to hire an attorney. Failing to find legal help, in December, 2011, I filed a case in Small Claims Court in Ft. Bragg, asking the court to order the yaks be returned to me. In this trial, the first of two, the Judge ordered the woman to return the yaks to me. I called the sheriff in Tehachapi , faxed him the ruling from the court and asked if he would assure me that the sheriff's office would meet us at the ranch to prevent any further obstruction in picking up the yaks. Nope, he said, your paper work is NOT a court order, you will have to petition the court for a court order. I prepared and filed a proposed court order to enforce the ruling made by the judge to allow me to pick up yaks. But, as fate would have it, the court could not issue a court order until the loosing defendant had time to appeal. Yes, you guessed it, the woman filed an appeal. In March, a new trial, a trial de novo, was set in Ukiah in Superior Court. An appeal in small claims court is granted to any loosing defendant and has nothing to do with the first trial. A new judge hears the case again and can uphold the lower courts ruling or change it. At the new trial in March, I presented the same evidence I had in the original trial. However; the woman had come up with a new story for this trial. She lied to the Judge, stating that I had forged her signature on the Foster Care Agreement. She claimed that I had GIVEN her all six yaks. She had no supporting evidence, but, unbelievably, the Judge bought her far-fetched story and awarded her the yaks! How could the Judge give her the yaks? I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had been blind-sided! The issue of yak ownership had never been raised previously – the woman had never filed a cross claim in either trial. In Small Claims Court, once there has been an appeal, you cannot appeal to any higher court.”
Whitsett is heartbroken. “These are my best-trained, best-bred Royal females,” she says. “They are the heart of my breeding program, and also the best ones to take to Tibetan cultural events. “ Losing six prime breeding females is an incredible blow to the mission of the Yak Conservancy — not to mention Whiitsett’s anguish over their living conditions in the Mojave Desert.
Is there a way to restore Whitsett's precious Royal yaks and calves to their home on the cool northern California coast? She doesn't know. “I'm going to try every means I can think of. Maybe if enough people read about my yaks, and the educational and cultural mission of the Tibetan Yak Conservancy, I can get some support to help me fight to get them back.”
The situation remains dire. Legal options may or may not be exhausted; meantime, the shangheighed yaks are still stranded in the burning desert, trying to raise their calves under the harshest conditions. The last resort is now the pressure of public opinion.
Just when you think this story can’t get any worse, it does! Whitsett is facing the loss of her yak's pasture as well. In order to stack the cards against Whitsett in court, the zoo owner reported Whitsett to Mendocino Code enforcement, alleging she had too many animals for her acreage. Whitsett did not have too many animals, however; the code enforcement intrusion so infuriated the landowner that she has retaliated against Whitsett by attempting to terminate the last year of her five -year lease. Whitsett has been served with a 60-day notice! Whitsett vowes to fight the landlower in court, but given her last encounter with Mendocino’s legal system, she is understandably on pins and needles. For now, the yak herd is still in Mendocino — including newborn calves – but are facing imminent eviction. New pasture is urgently needed and leads on land or suggestions as to where she could move the yaks if necessary are welcomed.
If there is any way you might be able to help save these precious stolen yaks or help in relocating the main herd, please contact Coralee Whitsett at (707) 813-1085, firstname.lastname@example.org. She can be also be reached via snail mai , c/o Woody Worden, PO Box 1593, Ft Bragg, CA 95437. Whitsett and the yaks thank you!