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Cops, Guns and Animals

By Jim “Snake-Killer” Waddell

I would venture a guess that most people who look at law enforcement officers and see the handguns on their hips and the long guns in their cars, don’t realize that most shots fired on duty don’t involve humans in hostile situations.

Of the nearly 40 years I was involved in law enforcement all but the last 5 were in Stanislaus County, either with the sheriff’s office or the Waterford Police Department.  Even though each law enforcement agency in a given county has its own policies and procedures and ways of conducting business, the trend has been toward uniformity.  For the purposes of this story, uniformity in the Stanislaus County area and beyond means reams and reams of paperwork that are required whenever an on duty cop fires a service firearm.

Naturally, if he shoots his gun or any gun in a hostile situation this policy of lots of reports is understandable.  That being the case, there are times an officer will discharge his firearm when he is NOT involved in a hostile encounter.  One surprisingly common example is putting the shotgun inside the car or taking it out of the car at shift change.   In the process an accidental discharge turns the roof of the patrol car into a convertible.  That wouldn’t be so bad in itself but it also destroys a light bar mounted on the roof that costs upwards of two grand apiece.

Other than in the cities of Modesto, Ceres and Turlock, most of the rest of Stanislaus County is considered rural and rural areas have animals.  These animals run the gamut of domestic livestock to possums, raccoons, an occasional deer and even mountain lions as these wilder species tend to follow the two rivers down from the mountains  (Stanislaus and Tuolumne).

Speaking just for myself, I can think of twice in my career I’ve had to put down large animals here in the valley.  One was a horse that sustained a broken back after it was struck by a drunk driver in the middle of the night, a couple miles west of La Grange in eastern Stanislaus County.  The other was when a Holstein bull got loose from a dairy, a few miles west of Salida.

In the second case, the bull, being a dairy breed, was in a pretty bad mood.  The fact that several local farmers, two highway patrol officers and two sheriff’s deputies were trying desperately to herd him back into an enclosure didn’t make him feel any more charitable.

This Holstein bull weighed probably close to a ton and even with all of that bulk, he was surprisingly agile.  He could turn on a dime and give you six cents back change and go from stopped to rocket fast in three seconds flat.  As I said, he was a dairy bull and I had learned early on from my agricultural background that bulls of dairy breeds such as Holstein, Jersey or Guernsey tend to be more aggressive than beef breeds like Hereford or Angus.  I never did learn the why or wherefore of this phenomenon but back to the story.

At first all four of us uniformed wranglers tried to shoo the bull back into his pen after we had parked and were on foot.  The bull was not impressed and charged two of the guys, sending one of them hurdling the fence along the road.  This didn’t turn out so well for the CHP officer as he came up about a foot short of making it over the fence and ripped his uniform pants from crotch to knee.  This put him out of action because it ripped some hide as well and he was left bleeding.

The farmers decided the cops were being paid to risk life and limb and elected to climb and watch us law enforcing cowboys handle things with the bull.  Two of the remaining three cops, myself and the other CHP officer, decided to use our patrol cars rather than to keep trying to do this on foot.  It may not be as effective but it was a whole lot safer.

The remaining cop, a fellow sheriff’s deputy thought he could put a stop to this bovine nonsense right now and pulled out his .357 caliber pistol to shoot the bull.  A note here is in order.  Most cops are not gun enthusiasts and are not all that knowledgeable regarding the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the guns they carry.  This deputy, having watched lots of TV cop shows, thought he could down the bull quickly with one shot.

Before I could holler at him to wait and I would get a rifle, he let one fly, trying for a head shot.  This might have worked had he hit the head straight on but a bull’s skull is as thick as a brick and a whole lot harder and the bullet did NOT hit straight on.  It struck the bull just above the right eye, glanced off and took a chunk out of his left horn.

The bull dropped to his knees from the blow to the head but that’s as far down as he went.  He got back up immediately and placed the sharpshooting deputy in HIS sights.  He charged the deputy from a distance of about 20 feet.  This was not enough distance to give the deputy time to climb into his car, so he jumped up on and slid across the hood of the car.  He landed on the other side, injuring his knee just as the bull slammed into his car. Now we had two of the four cops taken out of the fight.  Score:  Bull 2, cops 0.

It could be said, up until the deputy shot him, that the bull was just aggressive.  After the bullet slammed into his skull he skipped a level from normal-aggressive into a turbo variety.  When he hit that car just in front of the driver’s door, it smashed the left front fender in, pushing it against the tire.  By this time, I had gotten to my car and pulled out my .30 Caliber M1 Carbine, a World War 2 military rifle.  I shot the bull behind the ear, angling for the brain.  Due to the movement of the bull and my adrenaline running at full strength, I missed, cutting a furrow across the top of its neck.  The bull stopped, maybe to catch his breath or maybe to search for a new target to charge but it was enough time for me to take more careful aim and I put one into his brain.  That finally did it.

The total casualty count in this incident was one bull dead, one farmer without a sire for his herd of milk cows (the farmer actually was relieved as he said that bull was trouble from day one),  one highway patrol officer went to the hospital for lacerations to his leg, one sheriff’s deputy went to the same hospital for a knee injury, one patrol car had to be towed away and one sheriff’s deputy (Me) stuck doing all of the reports  which took ten times as long to complete as it did to terminate an angry bull.

Those incidents happened earlier in my career.  Fast forward to the year 2000.  I had been retired for several years and was working as a private investigator when I yearned to be back in a patrol car.  Calaveras County (San Andreas, Valley Springs, Murphys, Arnold) Sheriff’s office was really in need of deputies as they were willing to hire a guy way past his prime (I was in my early 50’s).  Typically, and I was no exception, a new deputy is required to work with a training officer for a few weeks, then if the T/O says he’s cleared the deputy starts out on his own.

It was the second or third day with my trainer and we were working an afternoon/evening shift when we got a radio call to contact a man in the Rancho Calaveras subdivision, south of Valley Springs near La Contenta golf course.  He was reporting a snake in his yard.

After I said 10-4 to the dispatcher I turned and asked Gary, my trainer, “A snake in the yard?  Why is that a sheriff’s issue?”

He said, “Oh, that’s right, you’re a flatlander.  We get calls like this all the time.  People find rattlesnakes all over the place.”  I was aware that rattlers were home in the foothills of the Sierra and also on the west side of the valley in the Coast Range.

“Gary? Do we go arrest the snake?  Or the person calling us about the snake?  Why do people call us when they find one?”

“Because we have a policy of getting rid of them for residents,” he answered.  “This all started several years back during an election year.  The sheriff at the time thought it would help him get re-elected if he promised his deputies would save damsels in distress when they walk out their back door and find a five foot Western Diamondback sunning itself on their woodpiles.”

My antenna was all the way up for this one, “HOW do we get rid of the snakes?”

“Almost always, we shoot them, unless there’s a safety issue with neighbors or such but most of the time, it’s in a rural area where popping one isn’t a problem.”

As I was driving toward the address my mind was on the time consuming reports I would be required to write just for shooting a rattler.  Gary asked, “I heard you were a firearms trainer in your earlier life, is that right?”  I told him I had been on two police pistol teams and had traveled all over the state in pistol competition, trained others and even in the Army I was a firearms trainer.  “That’s good because I’m a lousy shot with a handgun and you can show me how it’s done,” He offered.

By now I was starting to realize some major differences between working as a patrol officer in Stanislaus County compared to the mountainous Mother Lode area of Calaveras County.  The snake call was a new one for me and so were our response times to calls.  In 80-90% of the calls we would get in Stanislaus, we would arrive within 20 minutes, many of them a lot sooner.  Up in the gold country, where there were 4 deputies for the entire county (at full strength, compared to a minimum of 9 or 10 cars in the valley) it was not uncommon to take up to an hour or more in Calaveras, due to the larger areas one deputy has to cover.

That was on my mind as we pulled into the driveway on the snake call 50 minutes after receiving it.  We had been in West Point when we got the call and there’s no fast way from West Point to Rancho Calaveras, especially in the afternoon when all the schools are getting out and you have to stop for the school busses and their red lights.

As we got out of the car Gary said the snake was probably gone as long as it took us to get there.  Then the front door opened and a man came out and said it was still there, in the back yard.  We followed him around the house and it was in a grassy area next to an outbuilding.  The snake wasn’t coiled but it was bunched up and it looked to be of medium size.  Aside from the rattles on the tail there is no mistaking a rattlesnake or pit viper as this class of snake is named.  They have a wedge-shaped head that’s wider than the body.  It was looking at us but didn’t seem alarmed.

Gary told the man it was our policy to just shoot it if he had no objections.  The guy said he didn’t he was just happy we were there as he wanted it gone.  He said if we would kill it, he would dispose of it.  Gary looked at me and said, “Ok, Matt Dillon, show us your stuff.”

I’d always heard a snake can strike twice the distance of its body length and I was mentally trying to calculate how long it was but couldn’t because it was all bunched up.  I’ve had several encounters with rattlers on hunting trips and wood cutting.  I did not like them but I wasn’t afraid of them as long as I was a healthy distance away.  In this case I figured a healthy distance was at least eight feet or so.

I was aware if you’re going to kill a snake, you have to hit it in the head.  If not it will get away and may or may not die with a body shot.  I also knew from prior experience a rattlesnake can move at a really fast pace when it wants to.

Out came my .45 auto and as I took aim, I noticed the sights completely covered the snake’s head at that distance.  Ever confident in my marksmanship, I let one fly and missed.  In the thick grass, I wasn’t able to see where the bullet went, whether I was high or low.  What I did see was the snake take on the attitude of the Holstein bull from many years ago.  Now he went into a full coil and was shaking his rattles for all he was worth.  I followed my natural instinct and backed up several steps.  I looked at Gary and the man.  Gary was grinning and the man was expressionless.  I was embarrassed but I edged closer to the snake as the closer I was the better chance I had of scoring a hit (and the better chance the snake had of scoring a hit!).  On the fourth shot, I finally hit it in the head and it died.

I heard on the portable radio, dispatch calling us asking if we were ok as they’d received a call of several shots fired at our location.  I said we were secure, we were dispatching the snake.  Now my embarrassment at missing the first shot was multiplied because not only did Gary and the man see me miss, all law enforcement in the whole county knew it too.  After that day, my nickname at the sheriff’s office was “Snake Killer.”

As we cleared from the call Gary said, “Can I make a suggestion?”

“Of course, you’re training me.”

He said, “In the future, use the shotgun on snakes, it will save you some embarrassment.  I learned that lesson early on which is why I always keep some birdshot loads just for this purpose.  You can’t miss with them and they’ll give you one shot kills.”

I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me this before I made myself look like a dipstick?”

“I thought about it,” he said, “But I couldn’t resist, plus, I wanted to see if you really are a super duper pistol shot.”

We drove away, headed to the next call which was a grand theft that occurred in Salt Springs Valley.  This call was only 25 minutes away.

I asked Gary, “What am I in for in the way of reports on the snake case?”

He said, “What are you talking about?”

“I fired my gun, not once but four times, I’m expecting to have to write a ten chapter book,” I said.

“Man, what kind of place did you come from? We don’t do reports on shooting snakes, or deer either for that matter.”

I looked long at him and said, “Deer?  What, people call you to shoot deer?”

“If you haven’t noticed,” he said, “This county is in the mountains and mountains are full of deer.  As time goes on, more and more people move up here from the bay area and other places.  These people all drive cars and when you have cars on the road and deer trying to cross roads, they often try to occupy the same space and that usually doesn’t end well for the deer.  Sometimes it doesn’t end well for the driver of the car for if he or she hits the deer just right, it will roll up onto the hood of the car with the deer feet or hooves breaking the windshield and at times will injure or kill the driver.”  He went on to explain it’s the policy of the sheriff’s office for deputies to euthanize deer that have been struck and injured by vehicles.  The Highway Patrol has the same policy.

Gary went on, “When we kill the deer, dispatch notifies Fish and Game and they come and take it to who knows where, they probably take it home, I don’t know.”  (This actually happened about a year later when I got a call from the patrol sergeant to meet him at Highway 4 and Poole Station Road.  When I got there, he was with a game warden and they asked if I wanted a deer carcass somebody had recently run over.  Both the warden and the Sergeant didn’t want it.  I didn’t have freezer space but thanked them anyway).

Gary went on to explain that we got so many calls of snakes and injured animals on the road, it wouldn’t be practical or necessary to write reports every time we shoot one.  He said dispatch makes a notation on the call card and that’s all there is to it.  Things sure are different between departments in the valley and in the mountains.

While I’m on the subject of wildlife, there’s another species I encountered on a regular basis that did not exist in the valley and that’s the wild turkey.  I rarely saw a single wild turkey.  They were always in groups of anywhere from 10 to 30 as I remember.  I read about hunting them in gun magazines where if hunters are to be successful going after wild turkey they have to take special precautions such as camouflaging all of their exposed skin, even their shotgun as the turkey is so smart and wily, he will spook at the slightest sound or something it sees out of the ordinary.

The turkey may be crafty when he’s in the bushes but he’s the dumbest creature on earth when it comes to avoiding a high speed patrol car rounding a curve on a two-lane mountain road.  In the five years I worked in Calaveras, I couldn’t begin to count how many turkeys I took out in this manner while responding to urgent calls.  Sometimes I would hit as many as five or more in a bunch in this manner.  It seemed they always managed to be lounging in the roadway on a blind curve, never on a straightaway.

About a year after I started working there, I was assigned to “B” beat which is from the Stanislaus County line up to Murphys.  I had just come on duty, about 6:30 in the morning and was still at the office in Copperopolis when I got a call to assist the Highway Patrol.  A woman on her way to work had struck and injured a deer on Murphys Grade Road near French Gulch Road, half way between Angels Camp and Murphys.  The dispatcher said the Highway Patrol officer in that area was tied up on a crash.

The dispatcher asked if I was still in the office.  When I said yes, she said to standby for a phone call.  The phone rang and Cindy (dispatcher) said she wanted to warn me, the caller was the person who struck the deer and said she was standing by and would wait for the officer to arrive.  Cindy said this woman had an attitude and wanted to give me a heads up.

It was about a 25-30 minute jaunt up Highway 4 and onto Murphys Grade Road.  As I arrived a woman got out of her car and stood there waiting for me, hands on hips.  In a drainage ditch beside the road was a full grown doe that was using her front legs to try to drag her body forward as clearly her spine or back was broken as her two hind legs were splayed out parallel to the ground.

It was pretty clear the car had struck the deer as there was hair on the front bumper and some blood on the ground in the westbound lane of the roadway.  It was pretty obvious the deer was in the roadway when the collision occurred.

I was still walking up and about the time I was going to say hi and introduce myself the woman opened her yap with, “I didn’t think anyone around this wilderness was going to come help me.  I hope I didn’t get you out of bed or maybe you weren’t quite done with breakfast when I called.”

Fighting back a strong urge to match her sarcasm with my own I said, “I was in Copperopolis when I got the call.”  I did not say I was sorry it took so long as that would have been a lie.

Then she outs with, “Copperopolis?  Aren’t there any other cops around and besides, I called the highway patrol, what are YOU doing here?”

I couldn’t help it, I said, “Yes, you called the highway patrol but they are busy dealing with OTHER careless drivers, so they asked me to help.”

“Are you insinuating this was my fault?” she asked.

I said, “I don’t know yet, I just got here.”  I knew from other calls such as this, it’s rarely the driver’s fault when a car hits a deer.  Deer, not unlike wild turkeys, aren’t real smart when it comes to physics and the dangers of vehicular traffic.  It wasn’t my job to find fault or investigate the collision, my only interest was to make sure she wasn’t injured, make sure the roadway was clear of hazards for other drivers and to euthanize the deer.

After making sure she was not hurt and making sure her car was ok to drive and everything worked safely, I told her she might want to be on her way as I was going to have to put the injured deer out of its misery.

“Oh no you don’t, you’re not gonna get rid of me without me making sure you’re not going to let that poor animal suffer, I am a member of PETA.”

If anyone reading this doesn’t know what PETA is, it’s an animal rights group, with extreme views and thoughts toward things like they would rather animals thrive over people and many other radical thoughts on all things against God and country.  The acronym stands for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Based on her appearance, demeanor and just plain nastiness, when she admitted she was PETA, I was not one bit surprised.

I said, “Ok, as you wish,” and retrieved the shotgun from the rack in the patrol car.  We kept the shotguns loaded with buckshot for defense purposes.  Taking my trainer Gary’s advice, I kept a supply of various loads of shotgun shells from slugs to birdshot.  In this case I took a 3 Inch magnum shell, loaded with 15 pellets of 00 buckshot.  Each pellet is .33 caliber or about a third of an inch in diameter.

“WHAT are you going to do with THAT thing?” she demanded as I slipped the magnum shell into the chamber and walked up to the injured doe.  “Hey, wait a minute, you mean you can’t give it a shot, like vets do?” she asked.

I walked up to within about 6 feet of the doe’s head and told her, “I don’t have a license to carry or use those things.  As I walked up to the deer, she was right with me, step for step, yapping in my ear like a noisy Chihuahua.

Without further warning, I shot the deer’s head with that very powerful load.  It splattered both PETA and I with brain matter and other soft tissue from the deer including parts of eyeballs.  I knew we were going to get it from that distance but knowing I had a clean uniform and shower back at the office, I considered it worth the trouble to put Mrs. PETA in her place once and for all.

She screamed and yelled and called me more names than I could ever remember, got into her car and peeled out, spraying rocks and gravel as she entered the roadway.  What happened next I could never have planned in a hundred years.  Mrs. PETA didn’t notice the arriving highway patrol car who had cleared from his accident call and came to see how I was doing.  When he saw her driving like this, he turned and lit her up.  Talk about justice.  He got her for reckless driving and almost had to arrest her for refusing to sign the ticket.  I told him breakfast was on me after I cleaned up and changed clothes.