Stefanie Geckler was raised in Nevada County and is the current Supervising Animal Control Officer of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO) and founder of nonprofit, Humane Emergency Animal Rescue Team (HEART), but if you asked a youthful Geckler if her dreams involved law enforcement and animals, you’d be barking up the wrong tree.
Geckler never envisioned one day she’d be helping animals, nor working in law enforcement. As a teenager, she had her eyes set on Hollywood—the stars—the glam—the fame—and she did it. After attending college at San Francisco State University and film school in Los Angeles, Geckler landed a few lucky commercial breaks, including one major commercial with Nike. Her success opened the door to bigger and better opportunities, the largest of which was a four-year gig with soap opera, Days of Our Lives, as a recurring character.
While she loved acting, she found herself always seeking more. She dabbled in other career fields and even worked as a surgical technologist at one point, but everything changed for her when 9/11 hit and suddenly, the LA life wasn’t as glamorous as it once seemed.
“After 9/11, it was one of those realizations living in Los Angeles, where you don’t even know your neighbors and people didn’t really talk to one another. You went from point A to point B … it’s a different lifestyle. I wanted to be home and to be around family.”
Back in Nevada County Geckler knew her acting days were now behind her and she began brainstorming what she would do for income. She came up with the idea to open a bar, but she had no experience with bars or restaurants, but the same drive she had to succeed as an actor came through.
“I bought a VHS video on how to bartend,” she recalled. “And I threw it together and bought a liquor license and opened up a bar. It was like lightning in a bottle and it was a big success.”
For seven years, Geckler owned and operated Stinky Mulligan’s, a popular pub in its heyday, especially with locals in law enforcement, including NCSO. Through occasional engagement with off-duty personnel, it was suggested Geckler would make the perfect deputy, should she ever have the interest.
The idea of stepping away from her bar and joining law enforcement was a concept Geckler could hardly fathom, but after several years of bar ownership and her 40th birthday fast approaching, she was growing tired of the bar scene and became open to opportunity. That’s when the Animal Control division at NCSO caught her eye.
As an animal lover, the idea of working with animals daily appealed to her, so Geckler applied. After going through the required background investigation and standard hiring steps, Geckler was hired and began her career as an animal control officer (ACO), but immediately realized ACOs were nothing like she expected them to be.
“I didn’t like it at first,” recalled Geckler. “To me, it was the epitome of a dog catcher.”
Sheriff Shannan Moon, who was an NCSO captain at that time, encouraged Geckler to transform her position into everything she thought it should and could be in the face of animal wellness, a directive backed by then Sheriff Keith Royal too, and that’s exactly what she did.
“We do everything from serving search warrants to testifying,” said Geckler. “There is no typical day. The only thing typical is we start here at the Sheriff’s Office and we end here.”
Geckler’s team responds to all Nevada County animal calls, most of which center on neighbor nuisances, such as barking dogs, but they also get their fair share of welfare checks for suspected animal abuse or neglect. One such recent case involved 80 emaciated pigs. However, rather than seize the pigs and take them to Sammie’s Friends, a local animal shelter (which is standard for animal cruelty cases), this case centered on education, or rather, lack thereof on the owner’s part.
“It’s a lot of education. A lot of people get critters, but they don’t always know what proper care is, so we start with that conversation,” said Geckler.
Each case varies greatly, but in most instances, the conversation centers on steps for corrective action. The goal is to not seize the animals (when possible), but to support the owner(s) in taking the steps needed for proper animal care. In the case of the pigs, the owner lacked the education for proper care but was very responsive to implementing immediate changes for the pigs’ well-being. Geckler’s team continues to closely monitor the pigs’ condition, which has improved, but the case remains open and ongoing.
Through the years, as much as Geckler has redefined Animal Control at NCSO, she has realized that there was one big area lacking. In the face of emergency, especially fire, animal lives are at greater risk. Nevada County has a preexisting county animal rescue team (known as a CART), which is common in many cities, but while any help is better than no help at all, there are several limitations to CARTs.
One limitation locally is the CART is primarily used for post-rescue care (which is absolutely needed) but volunteer help has lacked during actual evacuations—the physical removal and transfer of animals in imminent danger. Another limitation has been training. With CARTs, Geckler is relying on the kindness of strangers to lend a helping hand. While appreciated, she has no idea who the volunteers are, if they’ve had specialty training/skills, and what, if any, criminal history they may have. The thought of relying on strangers to help and sending strangers into potentially dangerous situations didn’t sit well with Geckler and she knew there had to be a better way.
She came to the conclusion that Nevada County needed its own fully trained and certified animal rescue team that could physically respond and evacuate animals of all sizes in the midst of fire, blizzards, and other hazardous conditions, and thus NCSO’s HEART, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was born in January 2023. With the exception of Geckler who oversees HEART and her team, the organization is comprised solely of certified volunteers, dedicated to helping animals in the community who need rescue and evacuation during an emergency.
All HEART volunteers go through extensive training and certification that is administered by NCSO, in addition to ongoing trainings throughout the year. As an example, in October, HEART partnered with Nevada County Consolidated Fire to practice helicopter animal rescues, centered on large animals. The nonprofit also recently received $8,000 from the Nevada County Law and Fire Council to help with the purchase of a life-size horse manikin weighing 1,200 lbs. to practice harder rescue scenarios (total cost $16,000 with funding still needed). To further prepare for emergency, the Sheriff’s Office granted $80,000 for the purchase and acquisition of their own incident command trailer, which will soon give HEART the ability to personally dispatch rescue teams during catastrophic events. Funding also permitted the purchase of two additional animal rescue trailers. As Geckler leads the HEART team into winter, more equipment and supplies are needed to ensure successful rescues.
Prior to the establishment of HEART, Geckler had no more than five volunteer CART teams at any given time. Today, there are over 30 teams ready to go and the ongoing trainings have already been impactful. During the March 2023 blizzards, HEART was activated when it learned a pony and two horses were trapped in snow and additional dogs were inside a collapsed barn. The volunteer teams successfully rescued all animals without incident. More recently, the team was ready with 50 volunteers on standby during the Highway Fire in little town of Washington this past August, but thankfully, minimal support was needed.
Of all the jobs (and fame) Geckler has had throughout her career, saving the lives of animals has topped them all.
“This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” concluded Geckler. “This is the one where I go home and I feel I’ve done really good with my day—this is the job.”
To support HEART, tax-deductible donations may be made via Venmo to @NevadaCounty-SheriffsHEART (https://account.venmo.com/u/nevadacounty-sheriffsheart). Additionally, more volunteers are needed. The next Volunteer Recruitment period runs Jan. 1 – Feb. 29, 2024. Individuals interested in becoming a HEART volunteer may apply online at https://www.nevadacountyca.gov/3844/Animal-Rescue-HEART or in person at the Sheriff’s Office, located at 950 Maidu Avenue, Suite 280, Nevada City, CA 95959. The Sheriff’s Office is open to the public Monday – Friday, 8am – 5 pm and closed all holidays.