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Eleesa Kline, Ashland

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Washburn pet rescue starts neuter-return feral cat plan
Highbridge farm family rates TNR a success

Fuzzy Momma hissed in fine feline fighting fashion any time a cat approached the shed on the Bradley farm near Highbridge. Seeing the cat's hackles raised tipped off Alexandria Fischer that rescuing kittens would soon become part of her efforts to trap and remove the farm's feral cats to be fixed and returned.

The night before Fischer set out the traps, the Bradley family cleared away any food the cats could feast upon. Fischer then placed food-baited traps around the farm in the middle of the following day when the farm's feline colony was absent and couldn't detect anything amiss.

But Fuzzy Momma stood her ground guarding the shed door.

"If another cat came by she'd hiss and start a fight with them so we knew there were probably kittens in there," Fischer said. "Once we trapped her we were like, 'OK, now we go to work. Now we've got to go find these kittens.'"

Volunteers toiled for two hours to dismantle a pile of wood to unearth kittens Jorah, Gilly, Theon and Bronn, who traveled with their mother to Country Care Pet Hospital in Washburn as part of Helping PAWS Pet Rescue's recently launched trap, neuter and return program.

Trap,-neuter-return efforts, sometimes abbreviated to TNR, target the entire population of feral cats in a location such as a farm. They're trapped en masse and removed to be neutered and vaccinated before they're returned home.

Advocates say TNR efforts reduce the number of feral cats by limiting their reproduction instead of euthanizing them. Opponents say feral cats don't just control mice on farms, they also can devastate wild bird populations and are better off trapped and adopted.

Tripping the traps

The key to making TNR programs work is trapping a colony all at once, said veterinarian Gretchen Gerber, owner of Country Care Pet Hospital.

Helping PAWS, also run by

Gerber, launched TNR recently with the help of a grant and Fischer, a senior next year at Northland College who will make TNR volunteer work her senior project.

Trapping feral and semiferal cats at the Bradley farm was the project's first mission in the Chequamegon Bay area. Although the Bradleys were certain they only had eight to nine roaming cats to round up, Fischer eventually captured 20. And then four to five more cats moved in afterward to fill the vacuum.

Once captured, the cats are neutered or spayed to prevent the colony's population from booming exponentially. But the fix does much more than ensure kitty control.

Once fixed the felines become less predatory, Gerber said. They lack the hormone-driven push to hunt and mark their territory, and without litters they don't need to drag food home or teach their kittens to hunt.

Country Care Pet Clinic performs the surgeries for a discount, Gerber said. Afterward, the tip of the cats' ears are snipped off to tip off people that they have been altered and pose less of a threat to the outdoors.

However, kittens found among the adult cat population don't go home with their mothers. They are socialized for foster homes or adoption, and they're snapped up quickly, said Gretchen Hamernik-Winters, a Country Care Pet Clinic employee.

Jorah and Gilly still were roughhousing in the hospital's kennels because they needed a bit more socialization, but their siblings Theon and Bran were already living the good life with a family. Methuselah, the daughter of Squirt and sister to a rambunctious pair of kitties dubbed Pepsi and Cola, had been adopted after being trapped on the Bradley farm.

But their mothers, Fuzzy Momma and Squirt, kept in darkened cages, exhibited varying degrees of disdain for human company. Fuzzy Momma, who seemed to hold no truck with people, and Squirt, feral but sometime content to perch on Lisa Bradley's shoulder during chore time, were farm bound.

Home again

The final step in TNR — returning the cats to the outdoors — is somewhat controversial.

Everyone agrees cats don't belong in the natural ecosystem and mess with wildlife, Gerber said. But some people downright dislike cats being allowed to roam outside.

Dick Verch of Ashland, an avid birder and former teacher at Northland College, personally would rather not see cats released into the outdoors because they seriously affect the bird population. But while he would hesitate to release the felines, he said it's better than destroying them.

Gerber said trapping and euthanizing cats is practiced elsewhere but she believes it is ethically and morally wrong.

"And it doesn't work," she said.

A colony of cats returned to its outdoors abode settles back into its place in the hierarchy and, although a little less territorial, prevents unaltered feline interlopers from setting up permanent camp and reproducing.

The neutered and vaccinated cats quickly and contentedly return to their jobs, one of which is to keep the rodent population in check, Gerber said.

Marty Bradley is grateful for their help. He said rodents once plagued his farm of turkeys and chickens, gobbling up the birds' feed.

"Before the cats moved in we had thousands and thousands of mice everywhere," he said. "They were building nests in my toolbox."

The feral cats cleaned out the rodents on the farm and neighboring lands. Bradley jokingly said he should send the neighbors a bill.

But the Bradleys also committed to providing a good home for the mousers when they agreed to take the felines back. The family set up cozy, heated quarters for the cats to cuddle in during the cold months and feeds them cheap meat scraps from the butcher. For a treat the cats may be offered tuna fish, sardines or other canned foods.

"That brings them out of the woods running," Bradley laughed.

Funds and volunteers

Helping PAWS Pet Rescue obtained funds to implement TNR in the Chequamegon Bay area from Maddie's Fund, which invests resources to create a no-kill nation where dogs and cats are guaranteed healthy homes or habitats.

Maddie's Fund supplements contributions from local donors to cover the cost of neutering the cats, which Country Care Pet Hospital bills Helping PAWS at a reduced price, and Fischer's work.

Fischer will use her TNR experiences for her senior-year capstone project. She plans to document cat populations at the Bradley farm and other TNR locations.

Now that they have seen how TRN has worked on their farm, the Bradleys also plan to volunteer their time on other farms, and one is already lined up that has three to five cats.

At least as far as they know they only have that many cats. Time and traps will tell.

To request Helping PAWS trap, neuter, return program call 715-373-2222 or email

Kitty video:

To watch Pepsi and Cola at play visit the Ashland Daily Press youtube website.

Something 'truly special' being killed
Parents fear for kids' learning as Ashland ends charter schools





Honore Kaszuba enrolled her son Stasz in Ashland's charter school program because it offered him the opportunity to delve deeply into topics that interested him.

"He's able to learn his basics, his English, writing composition, yet he is very interested in history and science and he's able to choose to do projects where he is able to go a lot deeper into a topic than he would ever get in a legacy school," she said.

Ashland School Board members voted behind closed doors May 20 to phase out two of Ashland's three charter schools at the end of next year's school term, leaving parents like Kaszuba and members of the charter school committee fearing that even if the district moves forward with plans to create a "school within a school" without charter school status, something irreplaceable is being lost.

The district told the Daily Press this week that the

decision to close the Lake Superior High and Oredocker Project schools was made essentially to streamline administration.

Kaszuba said that's not a good enough reason to close charter schools that outscore their traditional counter parts on state report cards and, more important, allow kids like hers to thrive.

She specifically chose the Oredocker charter school after the family opted for open enrollment in the Ashland district. Stasz began elementary school in Iron River, where the family lives, and would have moved into Northwestern Middle School afterward.

But Stasz did well in Iron River, and Kaszuba wanted him to get the same individual attention he got there.

"My son was a very shy and somewhat insecure kid, and we were more comfortable having the smaller class size for him where he had the ability to be a leader within the classroom," Kaszuba said, recalling her own difficulties as a child transitioning from a very small school to a much larger one.

Kaszuba said their decision was right on. Stasz has grown in the Oredocker school in ways he couldn't have in a traditional school, she said.

"He has really found his voice, and has been able to be more secure in his classroom. I think if he had been in the legacy school he would have kind have been lost in the crowd more," she said. "We liked the fact that he was able to concentrate on doing projects he was really interested in, and we also liked the lower student-teacher ratio."

Special learning

Charter schools are public schools that are independently operated and administered by their own governing boards. They are granted "freedom from most state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for results," according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Some charter schools are housed separately from legacy schools. Others are within the walls of legacy schools. Lake Superior and its 14 students and Oredocker's 47 kids in the sixth through eighth grades — including Stasz — all attend class in a designated area in Ashland High School.

Another hallmark of charter schools is their emphasis on project-based learning, in which kids learn by being assigned problems to solve and tasks to complete rather than in traditional lectures and teacher-focused instruction.

Stasz, for example, has done projects on early hominids, Alexander the Great and early European history, and on Komodo Dragons. He hopes to do a project on rare plant species next year.

Like Kaszuba, parent Jenny Mahan said her son Glinden has excelled in Ashland's charter classrooms thanks to teachers who tailor lessons to the way in which he best learns.

"It has offered a really flexible and creative and autonomous space for kids that they can't get in the regular school system," she said. "The projects and the learning that happens there are very student-directed, and there is a culture and a community that the kids and teachers have created that is something truly special. It's not something that can be plucked out of and set into the public school system."

Charter School Committee President Wendy Kloiber said that uniqueness stems from the fundamentals of how the schools operate.

"The charter school has freedom from certain requirements imposed on the legacy schools in exchange for accountability," Kloiber said. "In our contracts, we have a list of waivers, and that allowed them do things they would not be able to do in a legacy school," she said.

One of those waivers allowed Ashland charter students in 2017 to journey to Standing Rock in North Dakota, where they learned about the contentious Dakota Access oil pipeline protest at the Rosebud protest encampment. Other students visited an Xcel Energy facility.

"They talked about the need for energy, the need for native sovereignty and environmental preservation. That is something you would never see happen in the legacy school," Kloiber said. "The school allows for big blocks of time to be invested in field experiences and projects in a way that is verging on impossible to do in the legacy school."

Charter School lead teacher Laura Comer said the field trip allowed students to witness history firsthand. The protests — and crackdown on protestors — played out before them and on the national news, allowing students to debate energy use, indigenous sovereignty, federal authority and more.

"We got to see people really standing up for their lives, their culture. It felt like a very timely learning experience," Comer said. Some students took on personal projects dealing with the pipeline firsthand after the trip.

"We had the freedom not only to engage in that controversial topic, with kids studying the Enbridge pipeline, but we were able to let them develop their ideas about the two perspectives, and we were able to do that with fewer obstacles," Comer continued.

Just as important, the experience taught students how to affect change — a skill they are using now as they try to persuade the school board to reverse its decision closing the charters.

"It also taught them that you don't always get the change you want," Comer said.

The key to the trip and all charter learning is that not all lessons focus on improving test scores and hitting benchmarks. Instead, "we can choose to learn fewer subjects in greater depth," Comer said.

The district responds

In a letter to parents of charter students, Ashland Superintendent Erik Olson said the school board and administration were "committed to the school's focus on project-based learning models and will consider options to keep both schools going after 2019-20 as non-charter 'schools within schools.'" "It is the board's hope that these efforts continue for all students after the charter contracts end," he said. "However, no decisions will be made until a more comprehensive review of the project-based learning structure occurs during the 2019-20 school year."

What Olson's letter didn't address, Kloiber said, is that charter teachers are now allowed great flexibility in being able to give grade credit to students. If teachers in the "school within a school" are required to teach for tests as in traditional schools, Kloiber said, the essence of charter schools and what makes them work so well for nontraditional students could be lost.

"We don't know, and we are very concerned that it would become impossible," she said. "They just haven't done the research yet. The district has not shown us how it would work. That is why there is such concern."

That uncertainty may have an effect on the school's enrollment, Mahan said.

"I know people who have recently relocated to Ashland because the charter school is here. They were attracted by that specifically and are now very concerned because it is drying up and going away," she said.

Moving on

Kaszuba said that today, after time in charter schools, Stasz likely will do fine in any classroom setting. But other charter kids would be lost in a traditional setting, and she fears for them.

"This is their family. They feel a real bond and connection. It's going to be a huge disservice for them. The administration says it isn't going to be different for the kids; they will never even notice the change. They are really trying to appease the families by saying 'Don't worry it will still be a school within a school.' But honestly, the fact is they don't have a plan in place, and they made this decision without having one, behind closed doors, without ever talking to the teachers or the charter council ahead of time. It makes me feel very, very distrustful."

Kloiber said the district instead of summarily terminating the charter program should sit down with the charter committee and parents and do research on how to make the charter school program work without the existence of charter schools themselves.

"The charter schools exist for exactly that reason, because it hasn't been possible," she said.

Mahan said she was "flabbergasted" by the announcement of the end of the charter schools, and like others was concerned by the lack of communication with teachers and parents before the decision was made.

"There hasn't been a feeling that the administration is wanting input from parents or the charter council, which is unfortunate," she said.

Mahan said the decision leaves her and other parents struggling to figure out where their kids will do best when school resumes in the fall.

"The charter school has benefitted kids who either don't do well in the formal education setting or were not a part of it to begin with," she said. "We are all kind of left hanging wondering what we do next."

Fate of two missing in Ashland County still a mystery
Whereabouts of Raymond "Boom Boom" Ocasio and Jody Newberry unknown despite months of investigation



Where are they?

That is the question that baffles family members and police in a pair of disappearances that remain unsolved after many months.

Jody Lynn Newberry, 54 left her home of Bergland, Mich., to attend a musical event, Mellen Jam, and was last seen around noon of May 26, 2018.

Raymond L. "Boom Boom" Ocasio, 47, of Ashland left an Ashland County residence at about 6 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2018 driving a gray 2013 Honda Civic. Neither he nor his car have been seen since.

Both had cell phones but neither has used them since they went missing.

Both left families who are mired in the gray netherworld of uncertainty; not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead, left only with hope that somehow they can be reunited.

Boom Boom

Michelle Moesha Ocasio still lives in the same Ashland home that she shared with her husband Raymond. But it's likely she won't be living there long. On Wednesday she was in Ashland County Circuit Court to contest an eviction proceeding against her and her husband.

After the hearing, which resulted in an unsuccessful mediation attempt and will next go to trial, Michelle Ocasio sat on a wooden bench outside the courtroom and wept softly.

"With Ray's income gone it has been very hard," she said. "It's heartbreaking, confusing, stressful. I'm

already looking for a new place. I've already packed up. I need a smaller place."

Ocasio said in the eight months that Raymond has been missing, she has learned to take life on a day-to-day basis.

"All I can do is hope and pray that he will come back safely," she said.

About five years ago, Michelle and Raymond Ocasio came to Ashland seeking a new life, away from Milwaukee, where Raymond had battled crack cocaine abuse and a record of petty theft and involvement with the Spanish Cobras gang. Since then, Raymond had largely stayed out of trouble, while the couple worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet. With Raymond gone, that has become almost impossible for Michelle.

On the day of her eviction proceeding, Ocasio and her daughter Angelica Houle had an FBI-administered lie detector test.

"It was to show that I wasn't lying about him being missing and stuff. My daughter and I both passed," she said.

Ashland Police Lt. Scott Moreland confirmed that the Ocasio family had passed the polygraph examination. He said the test allowed the focus of the investigation to shift elsewhere.

He said the Ocasio family members, along with many other people interviewed during the course of the investigation, had been persons of interest. He said that an FBI agent from Milwaukee had administered the test.

"We administered the test to two family members, and basically they had been telling me the truth the entire time," he said. "It is valuable to have this information to say what they told us was the truth. Sometimes in law enforcement it is difficult because people do lie to us, and we have to use other tools to back these people's stories."

Moreland said during the polygraph process he was able to determine that the family members did not have any information about the disappearance, nor did they have any knowledge of who had been involved.

That's what the family still struggles with daily — their longing for any information about what happened.

"It's very stressful on all of us, especially seeing what my mom has to go through every day," said Michelle's daughter Vanessa Houle. "It's hard on my sons, too. They miss their grandpa.

"We need some peace in our lives. Somebody, somewhere knows something and for the love of God, I hope they come forward," added Angelica.

Ashland Police Chief Jim Gregoire shares that sentiment. He said the case has been extremely difficult to investigate.

"We don't know where he was headed, we don't know where his car is, there is no evidence," he said.

Still he has not given up.

"There is always hope, man, always hope," he said.

Gregoire said Ocasio's case remains a priority for the Ashland Police Department and both of his investigators are still working on it. No new information has turned up, but the case is not being relegated to the back burner.

"He is somebody's brother, somebody's son, somebody's husband," he said. "It's not at a dead end."

Gregoire said Ocasio's checkered past of drug use, petty theft and gang membership did not enter into the effort he and his offers were putting into the case.

"The bottom line is, he's a human being, and he's important," he said. "This guy is a member of our community."

Jodie Newberry

Just as much of a mystery is the disappearance of Jody Newberry, who failed to return to her home after the Mellen music event.

One year later, Ashland County Sheriff Mick Brennan said the case, despite one of the biggest searches in Ashland County history, is no closer to being solved than it was a year ago.

He said he welcomed any method that allowed the case to be kept before the public.

"Maybe somebody will remember something that happened then, or have seen since then," he said.

Brennan said the investigation has including placing alerts on Newberry's cell phone in the event it is used. It has not been activated since she vanished.

In addition to massive searches at the time of her disappearance, there were searches made in the fall after leaves fell off the trees, improving visibility. Hunters were asked to search the area. Another search was made after snow left in the spring.

All efforts were in vain, Brennan said.

"The unfortunate thing about this is that it's such a dense area out there with so many rocks, cliffs and crevices. If she is out there, you almost have to walk over her to see her," he said.

Brennan said the area was about as difficult to search as any in the county. He recalled the case of a missing man whose remains were found near the Ashland-Bayfield County line.

"We couldn't find him for a year," he said.

Brennan said there has been no shortage of rumors, all of which thus far have proven to be dead ends.

"But we follow up on everything we get," he said.

At this point, Brennan said there was no indication of foul play, and not even an indication that there had been a suspect to interview.

He said that in and of itself was highly unusual, but not unprecedented.

"We have had a couple of missing persons from before I became sheriff, and we still haven't located them. These are cases where they went off into the woods and they never found them," he said.

Like Gregoire, Brennan said he's committed to following the investigation to the end.

"You want to have some type of closure for the family, and for the agency too," he said. "We expended a lot of resources when it was reported a year ago. Search teams, dog teams, cadaver dogs, expanding the search area greatly. We had personnel from the Wisconsin DNR; we blew up five beaver dams to drain the water. We had fly-overs, drones. I don't know what other resources we could have used."

With nothing further to go on, Brennan said the case is inactive but not closed.

"If we had a lead, we would put boots on the ground and start searching," he said.

The dearth of information has had a profound effect on Newberry's family, especially as the one-year anniversary of her disappearance came and went on May 26.

"I feel lost, honestly," said Jody's son, Ryan Newberry of Bergland, Mich. "We've been at a complete and utter standstill for the last going on 13 months here, and we've got nothing."

Newberry said his mother was not the kind of person to just up and vanish.

"It's heartbreaking," he said. "The worst part of it is that she has two new grandbabies, both of whom are just slightly over a year old, that she has never been able to meet yet."

Ryan said any news at all would be better than the dark purgatory of not knowing, even if that news was bad.

"Absolutely anything would be great. At least it would bring some closure," he said.

Every day, Newberry awakes knowing that his mother is still missing. Every day he goes to bed knowing that she has not yet been found.

"The days seem like they never end," he said.

Its like that for all of Jody Newberry's five children, Ryan Newberry said. There is no joy when they gather.

Nevertheless, Ryan Newberry said he continues to hope.

"You have to keep it, if you don't then it's going to drown you," he said.

For another of Jody's children, son Jake Newberry, the waiting is also a continuing strain.

"We are just living everyday life, wondering, waiting for some answers," he said.

He too said he was hopeful, but said he was also a realist.

"Things are looking bleak here," he said. "There is not a lot of hope that she is alive, unless she was taken captive like in the Jamie Closs case."

Both brothers said they asked anyone who might have some knowledge in the case, however slight, to contact police.

"If you do know something, we are out here waiting and wondering, if you've got the information, you have to 'fess up," Jake Newberry said.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)