Sebastopol-area horse, dog die after eating poisoned cookies

A rural neighborhood south of Sebastopol is on “high alert” after homemade cookies laced with highly toxic oleander have killed a horse and a dog, raising fears among residents that other animals sickened recently were also poisoned.

The deaths of the horse and dog along Kennedy Road, as well as the near-death of a second horse, have prompted a criminal investigation that has pointed to a “person of interest,” according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“In my most horrific dreams I cannot imagine this would happen,” said Leslie Webb, 48, an artist who says her horse and dog, Cowboy and Rosie, were like family members.

“One of my horses ate the cookies and died. My dog, she ate them. She died as well. My other horse is recovering. Thank god my baby (filly) didn’t touch them,” Webb said.

Necropsies determined that Cowboy and Rosie died from eating the oleander-tainted cookies, which were left in three separate piles in a pasture that often contained Webb’s three horses.

Since the death of Webb’s horse and dog on Feb. 11, and confirmation last week that tests conducted at UC Davis found oleander in the baked treats, residents throughout the Bloomfield and Blucher Valley areas have wondered whether other recent animal deaths in the area were caused by poisoning.

“People are very scared,” said Belle Sweeney, who lives in the Kennedy Road area and lost two alpacas one day apart the week before Webb’s animals died. “People are moving animals away from the road. People are on high alert. I’m trying to get people to stay calm and look after each other, as already they do.”

Sheriff’s Sgt. Cecile Focha said that deputies have heard of other recent animal deaths in the area, but so far none has been connected to oleander toxicity. She said the poisoning of Webb’s animals appears to be an isolated incident.

Sweeney said necropsies showed her beloved alpacas were otherwise healthy with no trauma and that they’d most likely eaten something toxic, but there was no sign it was oleander.

“Crazy coincidence?” Sweeney wondered, in reference to the timing of the deaths of Webb’s animals, or something more sinister? A list that Sweeney has compiled of other recent deaths in the area - including a cat, a llama, another alpaca and a dog - has been shared on Facebook and online community bulletins and emails.

Sweeney said while neighbors need to be vigilant, they also need to not panic. “Only one incident has been confirmed with the cookies and oleander,” she said.

Still, like Webb, she is taking serious precautions. “I’m keeping my dogs and cats and children in, and we are talking about it.”

Webb took Cowboy to the Cotati Large Animal Hospital, where veterinarians attempted to save him.

On Tuesday, vet Calvin Dotti declined to discuss the case or the area’s concern, citing the criminal investigation.

The investigation has active leads, Focha said. No further information was released regarding a person of interest or a possible motive.

On Tuesday, Webb tearfully recounted the night her animals became sick, describing hours of vomiting and sweating by Cowboy and Rosie and an endless night of trying to comfort and tend to them. By 7 a.m., she’d contacted two veterinarians. She then took Cowboy to the Cotati clinic and a friend took Rosie to another area vet.

While she awaited word, her white horse, Oscar, began to get sick. When vets treating Cowboy and Rosie reported that the ailing animals had the same symptoms, Webb was convinced they’d eaten the same thing and she scoured the property, looking for mushrooms or some other explanation.

“‘What the hell?’” she said, recalling the moment when she found cookies about 10 feet inside the fenced pasture. “I found three piles of cookies. I just ran and grabbed plastic bags.”

She said they looked like oatmeal cookies, with oats sprinkled on top. She could see shredded carrots and apple and one seemed soaked in molasses - all favorites of horses. She also noted something green, which she thought could be marijuana.

Tests showed it was oleander.

“I’m just hoping and praying we find something. That they figure it out,” Webb said.

Webb lost another horse in August because of an undetermined medical emergency afflicting its digestive system. Between the three deaths, plus the vet bills for Oscar, who is recovering, Webb said she faces costs of more than $30,000.

The self-employed artist, who specializes in horse paintings, said she is grief-stricken with memories of how her healthy horses would greet her in the pasture and how Rosie was always happy and grubbing for food.

Focha asked anyone with information, or who believes they have an animal who has died from oleander poisoning to contact detectives at 707-565-2185 or offer information on the Sheriff’s Office silent witness form online. Tipsters may be anonymous.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or or Twitter@rossmannreport.

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