The Dogs Ate the House

Houses get old. Their roofs leak, foundations shift, pipes rust, but her dogs ate a Willits’ woman’s house.

“My house was already quite damaged when I bought it,” Lydia Dittmeier, 45, begins, “but I don’t want to tear it down. The dogs tore the sheetrock to pieces in fact, but that can be fixed. Dogs are chewers, you know. And I never had 29 dogs in here, I had 20 dogs. I took 12 off the property because of the barking abatement order. That left 8, and then Arbayo seized 6 of them. Do the math! How many dogs do I have in my house?”

I did the math and came up with a multi-species algebra consisting of X number of dogs, two cats, three sheep, 29 guinea pigs, three rabbits, a donkey, and a male street person.

One might call Lydia a caregiver. One might also sanctimoniously cluck that there are more caregivers in Mendocino County than there are people. Hard to believe, but, go ahead, do the math. Lydia, unfortunately, has taken in so many animals she can’t adequately care for them.   

Lydia Dittmeier is an animal person, an animal person squared, you might say. She shares her property on Hearst Road east of Willits with a Noah’s Arc array of critters, including transient two-footers the police have had to muzzle and remove.

The cohabitation of two and four-footed creatures hasn’t been successful. Ms. Dittmeier’s home has been red-tagged, declared unfit for her and other language-proficient bi-peds to live in. 

Ms. Dittmeier says her difficulties began when a 32-year-old man named Robert Arbayo went to work for Mendocino County’s Department of Animal Control a little more than a year ago. Ms. Dittmeier says Mr. Arbayo is “nothing but a Nazi and a criminal.”  As if she hasn’t made her dislike of Arbayo clear enough, Lydia adds, “Arbayo is a college-educated, articulate con artist and charismatic devil. He’s like a mercenary soldier.” 

A gun for hire in, presumably, Animal Control’s War On Lydia’s Dogs. 

Lydia vows “to get rid” of Arbayo and has threatened to kill him to do it.

Last week, with court bailiffs looking on, Lydia repeated her intention to  murder Arbayo. She issues her Arbayo fatwas in a calm but determined  voice, making them that much more convincing.

Ms. Lydia Dittmeier is a presentable woman in early middle-age who says that when she reduced her population of border collies to a lawful 7, her problems with Animal Control should have ceased — would have ceased if the villainous Arbayo hadn’t continued to pursue what she alleges is Animal Control’s secret agenda.

“They want to improve and cover up for their extortive practices over the years,” Lydia insists. “That’s why they hired that punk! If he comes on my property I will kill him because a citizen of the United States doesn’t have to put up with this. And Foss, who’s Arbayo’s boss? They’re hand-in-hand to cover up their racket of seizing people’s dogs and selling them for research. And then they go and change their name to Animal Care and Control. It’s disgusting. They should be called Animal Control and Cremation!”

Lydia’s Hearst Road menagerie had overwhelmed her by the time Arbayo, a 32-year-old history grad from Oroville arrived to go to work for Animal Control.  Lydia’s 20 border collies had gnawed the sheetrock down to the framing, representatives of several animal species roamed the crowded, desert-like acre surrounding the house, and burn cans filled with dog waste rested out back awaiting infrequent dump runs. 

The stench? There are people who like it. And passersby, unaware of the mayhem behind the dog’s head peering back at them out of a hole in Lydia’s livingroom wall, chuckled at the rare spectacle.

Lydia’s immediate neighbors, however, were much less amused at either the human or the animal antics next door, and not amused at all at the perpetual din of Lydia’s barking dogs.

  Fresh off an uneventful tour with the SPCA in Oroville, one of Robert Arbayo’s first assignments upon arriving in Ukiah was Lydia Dittmeier, Mendocino County’s most formidable dog lady.

Arbayo walked straight into a kennel of grief, but he did what he had to do. Some of Lydia’s animals were in bad shape, and there were way too many of them on one crowded, deteriorated acre. Arbayo began a sort of animal triage he’d cleared with a three-person advisory panel headed by long-time county veterinarian Bob Shugart. 

The mandated trio agreed with Arbayo that Lydia’s beasts were not being properly cared for and told Arbayo to grab the ones who needed immediate care.

Lydia did not approve.

“When Arbayo took my dogs he hit them with a baton right on my property right in front of me so hard they just dropped. That’s no lie. The dogs were fighting and he took a baton and whacked them so hard they just fell on the ground. One got a smashed nose from it and the other one I had to put in the pound truck myself because he was so broke up. It was such a fighter but seemed to have diarrhea, and I won’t keep an animal that’s sick. If something gets sick and I can’t cure it, I turn it in to the pound.”

  At the Ukiah shelter, Lydia visited her animals and haggled for their return. Animal Control, via the hapless Arbayo, informed her she had to pay for the maintenance and medical care the animals had required while they recuperated at the shelter.

Then marauding dogs broke into the animal shelter’s sheep pen and ate Lydia’s sheep.

The DA, a libertarian, is loathe to involve his office in seized animal cases unless, as he puts it, “They’re bleeding, starving or dead.”

Lydia’s sheep were bloody and dead.

Lydia went to the DA. 

“If my sheep were eaten by dogs while they were in the animal shelter, how much danger could they have been at my house uneaten?”

The DA conceded she had a point, and Lydia launched a counter-offensive against the county and her nemesis Arbayo that has become quite complicated. Someone, perhaps a someone in the DA’s office who has noted that the wife of the Public Defender is a paid member of Animal Control’s staff, and thus an immediate relative of a political and professional enemy, seems to have suggested to Lydia that she sue the county to get her animals back. The suggestion to Lydia from an office that ought to know better was to sue under the statutes that dope people sue under to get their property back after drug raids.

No dummy, and certainly every bit as articulate as her nemesis, the “articulate con man” Arbayo, Lydia didn’t need more than a shove in the direction of the right law book to devise her suit. Simultaneously, she tried to get a court order restraining Arbayo from her presence, as if Arbayo were an overly ardent suitor and not the guy whose job it was to protect the animals on Lydia’s property from her strained affections. 

Lydia didn’t get the restraining order and has threatened direct action against Arbayo in lieu of the court order she wanted.

“My dogs don’t need their tails cut off,” she insists. “And neutering and spaying is not something that’s done in other countries. Some people like their dogs natural. Personally, I find neutering so disgusting I just won’t do it. To cut off their god given testicles from a creature is robbery! I won’t do it! I would just rather have them put to sleep than have them cut up. Arbayo has another dog of mine that was a biter that he held probably because he likes the fact that it bit me. The man has no soul. He took my dogs for barking only. I’ve never had complaints about them not getting humane care, ever.”

If her suit against the county is successful, Lydia would not only get her animals released to her, she would elude the county’s bill of $7,140 for their care and feeding at the animal shelter. 

Lydia explains why she’s suing.

“My class action suit is aimed at all the damage Arbayo has caused myself and everyone else with his false arrests, and attempted false arrests, and his marauding and pillaging under the color of law, and doing what he pleases in his articulate, con way. He’s hand in hand with Mr. Foss who’s a con man, too. I witnessed Foss go on a lady’s property in Covelo and take her four horses — they were fat horses, not bony ones — and they put the lady in the nut house for three days while they sold the horses for slaughter. Foss must have got $3,000 for them at 50 cents a pound. Of course she was a dog lady and a widow living alone.....” 

Frank Zotter of the County Counsel’s Office is defending the county against Lydia. Lydia, predictably, is suspicious of him, too.

“Mr. Zotter is kind of nice, kind of appealing, but once he gets in with those two, Arbayo and Foss, it’s the three racketeers. If you’re going to write about this you could call it, The Three Racketeers or The Plunderers.”

Zotter isn’t quite as weary of the Dittmeier matter as Arbayo, but he sounds like he’s getting there.

“I don’t think we’re insisting on her paying every dollar. What Animal Control wants is that the animals have a reasonably safe place to be returned to and that they are not a nuisance to neighbors. They’d rather return the animals if she has a suitable place for them. I think we’d negotiate the fees she owes.”

But Lydia has managed to get Judge Henderson to further complicate things. Henderson has declared that Lydia’s animals are to be returned to her but only if she is prepared to properly care for them.

Which she isn’t because her property has been condemned as a comprehensive  hazard to the health of man and beast alike. 

And Lydia, failing to get an immediate restraining order against Arbayo from Judge Labowitz, followed Arbayo out of the court room and threatened to kill him!

Again.

Arbayo sighs. 

“We were out in the lobby and she threatened to kill me in front of about a dozen witnesses. I just kind of moved out of the way, thinking that if I arrested her myself I would just be feeding into whatever it is she has for me. I thought the bailiffs were going to take care of it, but they let her go. They suggested I call the Ukiah Police Department. I called Ukiah and they said they’d take her in if the bailiffs arrested her. The bailiffs then said they wouldn’t do it because I didn’t seem to think it was an emergency at the time she issued the threat. So I said I’d do the arrest and they could take her to jail. The bailiff went to Judge Henderson, the judge called my boss and County Counsel and told them that under no conditions was Lydia Dittmeier to be arrested.”

Arbayo says he’s “perplexed.” He doesn’t understand why a judge would fail to back up a county employee going about his lawful duties. 

“The judge knows that Lydia’s animals should have become county property two weeks ago. The law is very clear. But he gave Lydia ten more days to ‘work it out with Animal Control.’ She never came to the table. She went to court, and now she thinks that the DA and the judge are on her side and that she’ll get her animals back at no expense and with no stipulated conditions for their care.”

When Arbayo and County Counsel Frank Zotter went into court to argue with Judge Henderson that his delay in applying state law to protect animals was not helping Lydia or her critters, the judge refused to look at photographic evidence that Lydia’s property had literally gone to the dogs.

Arbayo has just about had it. 

“A lot of our work is preventive,” Arbayo says in the weary voice of a man explaining what ordinarily requires no explanation. “If we don’t have the teeth to help these people understand that if they don’t change they could go to jail, we’ll never get them to change. The county puts out a bad message if it negotiates with a person on her own terms who maintains a neighborhood nuisance who says if she doesn’t get her way she’ll kill somebody.”

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