Opening day of the Ohio deer-gun hunting season is one of the busiest work days of the year for state wildlife officers. One November morning, I joined 16-year veteran officer Jeremy Carter and his K-9 officer partner, Finn, to find out just what opening day is like from a wildlife law-enforcement perspective. I met Carter and Finn at 7:00 a.m.—just before dawn—and learned that it had been a short night for the pair.
It seems a group of poachers had decided to start the deer hunting season a few hours early by shooting and killing five white-tailed deer the previous afternoon, planning to check the deer as legal kills the following day. But an anonymous source had tipped wildlife officers to the crimes, and that’s when Carter and Finn were called to assist in the investigation.
“Finn quickly found the empty shotgun shell casings, and that evidence helped us obtain a search warrant for the poachers’ camp,” said Carter. “We found that they had already processed the deer and thrown the heads and hides into a dumpster. Finn and I didn’t get home until about 2:00 this morning.”
During the past year, and for the first time in its long history, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, has joined more than 20 other states in employing K-9 officers. Five dogs and their handlers were trained and assigned one per wildlife district, with Carter and Finn, a two-year-old male German Shepherd, assigned to Wildlife District Three in northeast Ohio. Finn was born and raised in Germany, so Carter has to give him some commands in German for the dog to understand him.
“All the dogs were trained to detect six different scents,” said Carter, “gunpowder, waterfowl, turkey, deer and fish, as well as ginseng.” Ginseng is a highly-regulated plant that grows wild in the eastern U. S., including Ohio, and its roots are frequently dug illegally out of season by poachers. “The dogs were also trained to track people by scent, and come to an officer’s aid if necessary,” added Carter.
Carter, Finn and I spent the morning cruising the rural roads of Holmes County, a mixture of rolling woodlands, crop and weed fields; in essence, perfect deer habitat. Carter kept a sharp eye out for blaze-orange clad hunters as he drove, and when he spotted one or more he would stop to check the hunter’s firearm, hunting license and deer permit. In between stops he filled me in on some of the other cases he and Finn had been involved with since hitting the field last spring.
“Just a few weeks ago we were called to assist in an investigation in an adjoining county,” said Carter. “A hunter had killed a nice eight-point buck, and then had gone out hunting again a few days later to try and take a doe, which is legal. But as he was hunting, a huge 200-class buck came along that he had been watching for several years on trail-cam photos.”
The hunter couldn’t resist the temptation and shot and killed the second trophy buck. He then discarded the head of the smaller eight-point so as not to get caught with two bucks, which is illegal in Ohio this hunting season.
“Two wildlife officers searched for two hours trying to find the head and rack of the first buck, the one the hunter had pitched, but with no success,” said Carter. “When we arrived, Finn found it in five minutes,” he said proudly.
The duo has also assisted other Ohio law-enforcement agencies. For instance, just a month after graduation they were called to the location of an alleged assault where Finn located crucial evidence within only a few minutes of arrival.
Although Carter is pleased with Finn’s accomplishments thus far, he knows his young partner will benefit from continued training. “I had Finn on and around various sport-fishing boats at Lake Erie this past summer looking for walleye over-bags, but we didn’t have much success,” said Carter. “It seemed that everything smelled fishy to Finn. He would alert on various objects that were not fish or fish fillets, such as smelly fish towels. We need to work on that…”
When asked how Finn has fit in with Carter’s family—his wife and three sons—Carter shared this interesting anecdote. “Everybody loves Finn, but one of our two house dogs didn’t,” he said. “I tried introducing the dogs to each other gradually, by keeping them in separate yet adjoining rooms for a few days so they could smell each other but not see each other and possibly fight. Yet once I opened the door the fur still flew, with Finn coming out on top. He’s now the reigning alpha male of the three dogs at our house.”
Carter also said that Finn knows when it’s time to go to work. “When I start to put on my uniform and gear in the morning he gets excited,” said Carter. “He loves working. And my wife says that on the few days I have to leave him home, such as when I’m attending an all-day meeting at district headquarters, he whines and mopes around the house, lying by the door waiting for me to return. But that’s a good thing, as the bond between a K-9 handler and his dog needs to be a strong one.”
During the afternoon, Carter and Finn received yet another call for assistance. A hunter had shot at a deer, missed, and the rifled slug had accidentally hit a passing vehicle. No one was injured, thankfully, but when such a “hunter incident” occurs, as Carter called the situation, it’s considered top priority and he responds immediately. And as in the other cases previously described, Finn quickly found the empty shotgun shell casing, as well as the shotshell wad. Both pieces of evidence will be used to match the shell to the specific shotgun used by the suspect during the shooting.
I noticed during my ride-along that when Officer Carter exited his vehicle to talk with a hunter, Finn would begin barking for a short time. “I didn’t train him to do that, and for a while it kind of irritated me,” said Carter. “But now I appreciate it. I have seen how hunters and others react to his barking, and if they had any thoughts about giving me a hard time or not complying with my requests they know they’ll have to deal with Finn. And that’s a comforting feeling when I’m in the field. I know I’m no longer working alone as I often did earlier in my career. I now have immediate backup should things hit the fan.”
Ninety pounds of backup, to be specific—and with long, sharp teeth!