Reporting (CBS 5) SARATOGA
Many people in the South Bay reacted with outrage last month when Caltrans admitted it had disposed of the body of a special service dog by taking it to a rendering plant without even notifying the owner.
Now CBS5 Investigates has discovered Caltrans dumping not just one, but potentially hundreds of dead animals in Santa Clara County.
It's an animal dumping ground known to insiders as the "Pet Cemetery", where workers for years have dumped wildlife and even pets.
One Caltrans employee who asked to remain anonymous told CBS 5 Investigates workers take dead animals to the "Pet Cemetery" and simply throw them over the cliff.
"If you throw it hard enough it goes down and everything disappears. You can't see anything from the top," he explained.
Among his fellow Caltrans employees, "It’s the accepted thing to do," he told us.
With his guidance, we found Caltrans' secret "Pet Cemetery" in the woods not far above the town of Saratoga, at a maintenance cutout along winding Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Looking over the cliff, we spotted some familiar orange bags littering the hillside.
“They definitely resemble the bags Caltrans uses in picking up remains from the sides of the roads and transporting them in their vehicles,” says Beth Ward with the Humane Society Silicon Valley. Ward and a coworker accompanied CBS 5 Investigates to the site at our request.
"This is definitely meant not to be found," Ward commented after looking down the hillside.
Reporter Anna Werner climbed down the hill with the humane society's animal care manager, Mike Foltz, to find numerous animal bones.
"Looks to me like you got a vertebrae right here, possibly a smaller dog or a raccoon," he said. Foltz proceeded to find and pick up more bones of all kinds.
The site has a distinctive odor. "There definitely is a decomposing, kind of a rotting smell," Foltz said.
Then as we walked a few steps farther, he spots a skull, and more.
"I … it’s all over. Oh Lord! It's everywhere," he said.
And everywhere, orange trash bags, all labeled with the Caltrans slogan, 'Care for California.'
Some bags have been torn open by animals and others were weighted with dirt or asphalt chunks.
"Looks like maybe there was some planning, too, as far as putting some dirt in with the animals” Foltz said. He surmised the dirt and asphalt made the bags heavier so they would slide further down into the ravine.
The worst sight waited down at the creek.
“Wow…holy smokes. This is just all bone in here,” Foltz exclaimed. Animal skeletons and bones litter the creek bed, some submerged in the water.
Foltz says he's never seen anything like it.
"This is not a natural occurrence", he said. "From the road it very much looks like a beautiful little creek going through this valley, but the closer you look it's just …it's a bone yard down here."
And why would Caltrans employees do this? Our anonymous worker blames pressure from supervisors.
"You pick it up and you get rid of it the fastest way possible," he said. "I've actually had a supervisor when I said that I went to the Pet Cemetery, he said, 'couldn't you just throw it in the bushes?' because that would be a shorter time to get rid of it."
But Foltz became emotional upon viewing the site.
"It's a sad thing to take in, really," he said. "The fact that another human being is finding an animal, possibly a pet, and not doing the right thing with it. Yeah, it's upsetting.”
CBS 5 Investigates brought our findings to Caltrans. Spokesperson Lauren Wonder did admit, "A few individuals are saying that they do use this area to dispose of animal remains."
Wonder says one worker even confirmed that animal dumping has been going on at the site for years.
"There was one that said that uh, it's been probably a decade," Wonder told us. Wonder claims, however, that pets were not dumped there, only wildlife.
"We do not dispose of pets," she said. "We have proper procedures for that and our, our staff has assured us that they are following it."
But we found the body of one small dog, and other possible canine remains, on the hillside.
And workers who did not want their names used confirmed they had dumped pet remains at the "cemetery", even though the practice violates Caltrans' stated policy of taking pets to the local Humane Society or SPCA.
"I never took a cat or dog to the SPCA, I just took it to the pet cemetery," the worker told us.
How many animals were dumped there? Wonder says Caltrans doesn't have a clue. But employees told CBS 5 Investigates the total could be hundreds or even thousands.
For animal advocates like Carl Friedman, the head of San Francisco Animal Control, news of the find is shocking. Friedman notes that people have extremely strong bonds with their animals. At San Francisco's facility, they reach out to the owner as soon as a pet is found.
"You've got x amount of time to contact the owner and let him know that your dog is impounded," Friedman said.
And Friedman says notifying families is especially important if a pet has been hit by a car or can't be saved. “It’s only the right thing to do to let families know that their loved companion animal has been killed," he said.
Which is why when he saw CBS 5 Investigates video of the "Pet Cemetery" he reacted with shock.
"That's horrendous," Friedman said. "That's horrendous."