It is part and parcel for our profession that we, as officers and deputies, regularly interact with the local animals. Not always the human kind.
Whether dealing with a cow on the freeway or a bear in a neighborhood, law enforcement officers face deadly encounters with animals that we are not necessarily trained or equipped to handle.
Having worked in Florida, I am familiar with most of our indigenous species. We more often deal with alligators, local snakes, injured birds, and loose domesticated livestock, though Florida is also home to coyotes, bobcats, panthers, hogs, deer, and bears.
In addition, unusual species such as monkeys, apes, caimans, exotic big cats, and other imported animals inhabit the state through legal and illegal means.
In my jurisdiction, we encounter aggressive alligators, especially during the spring mating season. Though since discontinued, training in how to safely capture an alligator was part of my academy curriculum in 1987.
Back then, officers from the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (now the Florida Wildlife Commission, FWC, for short), brought live alligators to the Vo-Tech for the cadets to wrangle. After a classroom session, we went outside where a live alligator (ours was about 7 feet long) was set free in the yard.
Under the watchful eyes of the Game and Fish officers, the cadets roped the errant gator and safely applied tape to its jaws. I’m sorry today’s recruits don’t get to practice this sometimes needed skill.
I have had to use this training on several calls over the years and I was glad I had learned the basic safety guidelines for handling this dangerous reptile.
Each region of the country has different animal issues, whether incursions by our own alligators or by polar bears on the other side of the continent in Alaska. Officers should make sure that they have at least basic knowledge of their local wildlife. Even if you are not going to effect a capture, having an idea of how the animal can hurt you is important.
In March 2011, a Smith County, TX sheriff’s deputy was killed while directing traffic at the scene of an injured cow on the highway. The cow suddenly charged the deputy and threw him into the air. The deputy subsequently died of his injuries. The cow was euthanized.
This very unfortunate line of duty death should remind us of the caution we need to exercise around animals. Admittedly, I was nearly knocked down by a galloping horse once while we tried to corral a small herd on a local road.
I stress that we only attempt to capture or detain an animal in an exigent circumstance, and when we are properly trained to do so. Heightened care needs to be taken with any injured animal.
The photos that go with this story are from us dealing with a 10’ gator that was roaming through crowded restaurant parking lots. It was alligator mating season and he needed to be immobilized while we waited for the FWC or a trapper to arrive.
In my area, we are lucky to have trappers that will respond to dangerous wildlife calls. Unfortunately, their response times vary. Sometimes we have to stabilize and wait.
Along with the hands-on alligator training, my academy had an animal identification class, which taught us various poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and insects. Probably the most important lesson learned was: If you can’t figure out what it is, don’t mess with it.
Add all of this to the number of domestic dogs, cats, snakes, and birds that will bite or scratch you and there is almost a whole separate job description to learn.
We need to treat animals with the same situational awareness that we do with people. Complacency and trust should not be in our work vocabularies. To paraphrase the legendary J.D. Buck Savage, “Watch the paws!” Stay safe.
Randall is a twenty-three year sworn police officer in a mid-sized Florida police department. He has been an FTO, K9 Handler, Detective, and SWAT Team Leader. He is currently the Midnight Shift K9 Sergeant and department SWAT Coordinator.