Game officer's burial prompts question: should dog wardens be armed?

As I stood on the hillside at a high school west of Harrisburg watching the seemingly endless procession of law enforcement vehicles from all over the country heading to the grave site following the funeral service for Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove, I pondered whether state dog wardens should be armed.

Grove, 31, was shot and killed Nov. 11 while responding to a call about poaching near Gettysburg. Police say Grove, who was patrolling a rural area alone at night, called for back up and local police responded in two minutes. But it was too late for Grove. They found him lying on the road. He'd been shot four times. (Police later captured the alleged shooter, Christopher L. Johnson, who is being held without bail in Adams County prison.)

Most Pennsylvania dog wardens patrol rural byways of the state alone. In addition to conducting kennel inspections they respond to calls about stray dogs, illegal kennels, dangerous dogs and bite incidents. Some cover two counties encompassing hundreds of square miles, armed only with pepper spray. They have no way to defend themselves from hostile humans or vicious dogs. The wardens' dart guns were taken away several years ago and because of budget cuts their radios have not been upgraded which could mean difficulty in calling for back up.

Inspection reports reveal confrontations, even with licensed kennel operators, do occur.

Several years ago wardens had to chase dog breeder Ervin Zimmerman through his Lancaster County cornfield. Several months ago wardens were denied entry by a Berks County kennel operator whose license was being revoked. A judge dismissed charges filed against that operator, Bridget Rhoads, for failing to allow an inspection. But with tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, it's not hard to conceive that angry confrontations could escalate to violence.

Last year, Wendy Willard, who was discovered operating an illegal kennel (Murder Hollow Bassets) in Philadelphia, threw stones at dog wardens and humane police officers as they departed from her property. Some of Willard's supporters sent death threats to Pennsylvania SPCA, which was investigating the case.

In 2009 the PSPCA decided to arm its humane officers after the board determined they were under increasing threat from the violence surrounding dogfighting and cockfighting and the other crimes associated with animal fighting rings such as drugs and illegal guns. Humane officers must complete training and certification. No incidents have been reported, publicly anyway, since the original 14 officers were armed early last year.

Dog wardens do not have arrest powers but they certainly face dangers - even life-threatening situations - of those who do. They come in contact with people who may be violent or breaking the law. They venture into remote areas with only bullet proof vests and a can of pepper spray. Is that enough?

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