LITHIA — Law enforcement officers struggle at times with resistant captives, though they usually don’t weigh 1,200 pounds.
For Deputies Crystal McClelland and Greg Starling of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Agricultural Crimes Unit, that’s almost routine. They catch cows, bulls and horses that have broken out of their pastures and wandered onto the highway, and they know how to get the animals to go where they want them to go. Most of the time.
““We’ve both been kicked by horses and cattle. It just happens,’’ said Starling. “That’s some of the on–the-job training that you learn, ‘Oh, okay. I won’t do that again.’ ‘’
The deputies wear polo uniform shirts and jeans on the job, badges and guns on their belts. Both grew up around farm animals and knew from the time they joined the sheriff’s office that that’s the job they wanted. Starling has been in the unit five years; McClelland, two and a-half. It took her 18 years to get the job she had been eyeing all along.
"I had horses continuously as I grew up, got into the (sheriff’s) office and I said, you know, that’s an awesome place to be,'' she said.
In addition to the training all deputies get, the “ag unit’’ deputies take courses in such subjects as animal health, how to maneuver large animals using their natural flight tendencies, and how to gauge the amount of tranquilizer to load in a dart gun to immobilize a resistant beast.
From time to time they investigate crimes deputies of the Wild West worked, horse theft and cattle rustling. McClelland laments that they have no witnesses and no clues leading to who stole three thoroughbred horses from a pasture near Citrus Park recently. The thief or thieves loaded two horses on a trailer and drove away, then came back a week later and stole the third. “We have no video. We have nothing to go on,’’ she said.
And not too long ago, Starling handled an open-and-shut cattle theft case. The owner called in from a cattle auction and said, “I believe my bull just went through the market.’’
More often, the deputies are trying to herd an animal back into the pasture where it broke out, and such work doesn’t always go smoothly. McClelland arrived on the scene one night after deputies on patrol encountered a calf on the loose.
“They called me in the middle of the night, so we get there and this little calf — had to have been a yearling if not younger — these deputies had no idea what they were working with.’’ This calf ran after a deputy, caught him and flipped him “handle over teakettle,’’ she said, noting that the scene was caught on video. “He wasn’t injured. It was kind of funny.’’
Starling had a surprise encounter with another calf on another night. He knew it was a show steer, because it had on a pink halter, he said. It was loose, and some locals had lassoed it, tied it to a tree and called.
“Me being the guy that I am, big strong dude, I go up and, ‘I’ll just grab this thing by the halter.’’ As soon as Starling caught hold, the animal reared up and head-butted him smack in the face.
“My nose just exploded. It was, ‘Oh, no!’ But I knew I couldn’t let go of this guy.’’ He managed to wrangle it into the trailer and later return it to its owner.
Too often, the deputies say, they have to step in when animals, horses particularly, become emaciated. They currently have about a half dozen horses penned at their livestock compound on the grounds of the Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training Center in southeast Hillsborough. The owners were in violation of state law that requires proper feeding, watering and shelter for livestock. The animals’ ribs and hip bones were starting to show under the skin. Most are steadily improving with proper feeding and veterinary care.
The deputies try to get the rehabilitated animals adopted, but if they can’t find anyone to take them they have no choice but to send them to auction, where their fate is uncertain. They could be bought by rendering plants or people who sell horse meat for human consumption. The meat is considered a delicacy in Europe. It’s against the law in the United States to harvest the meat for human consumption, but it’s legal in Mexico and Canada, so they "pipeline them out,'' McClelland said.
“A lot of what we get, unfortunately, is mom and dad want to go out and buy little Gracie their first little horse,’’ said McClelland. "They tell themselves, ‘We have this beautiful two-acre farm, we’re going to throw three horses out here in the pasture,’ without any idea what they’ve gotten into.‘’
They thought the pasture would suffice to feed the animals, but, unlike a cow, a horse tends to pull up the grass roots while grazing, and after a while the pasture is nothing but sand.
“You get a small lot, and then you get sand,’’ Starling said, “and the next thing you know, you see the horse rolling around because it’s colicked, because it has ingested the sand.’’
Keeping them supplied in hay and feed, along with supplements and medicines they may need, costs far more than they anticipated. “They don’t know. They think because they have pasture and grass, that’s all they need,’’ McClelland said.
J.D. Cauley, a rancher and reserve deputy working with the ag unit, said he spends $130 a week on feed for his four horses, plus he has to buy expensive supplements. A mixture that clears sand out of a horse’s digestive tract costs $67 a pail, and another supplement he buys costs $190.
In the best cases, overwhelmed horse owners start reaching out to equine rescue groups in Florida. They buy ads or post signs in feed stores in attempt to sell it or give it away, or they appeal directly to other horse owners. “There are a lot of good-hearted people who say, 'I don’t need a horse, but I’ll help you out, I’ll take this horse from you,’‘’ McClelland said.
In the worst cases, the owners do nothing, Starling said, and the horse becomes emaciated. “Then it becomes criminal, because then you have not acted; then you have not done (anything) or called for a veterinarian for care.''
It’s not a job for everybody, the ag unit deputies say. But it’s ideal for them. They like working with animals and getting to know the ranchers, they say. They also appreciate what Starling calls "the country way of life.'' He mentions as an example the mannerly and respectful Future Farmers of America students he works with, kids who say "sir,'' "ma’am,'' "please'' and "thank you.''
He served on the sheriff’s motorcycle patrol for eight years and enjoyed it, he said. "Now, this is what I do, and as I’m concerned, I can retire from here.’’