Homer Brown, Larry Lingo, and Lowell Cain—the three detectives who work the Agricultural Unit of Hillsborough County, Fla.—aren't afraid to get down and dirty.
"We just got done rounding up some cows at 10 this morning," says Det. Brown, referring to a case the trio and their horses handled on a hot, humid day last July.
Brown, who began his 24-year career as a K-9 handler before moving to the Ag Unit in 2000, says that the experience, while par for the course, was difficult nonetheless
"By the time we were done, my socks were soaked, my jeans were soaked, my undershirt was wet. I mean, I was soaking wet and it wasn't even noon!"
It's a scene straight out of the Old West. Of course the modern day agricultural detectives of Hillsborough County don't always use horses to round up wayward livestock, but it's not uncommon.
"We all have our own horses," notes Brown, "so, depending on the type of land, sometimes it's easier to go in with them, rope the animals, and get them out that way. But we don't run down the middle of the divided highway roping a cow like Roy Rogers."
Instead, when the three get called out at three o'clock in the morning to work the interstate, they use a more contemporary mode of transportation, namely trucks and trailers equipped with portable panels that can be used as ramps. These vehicles allow for a more modern approach to dealing with livestock, and give the crew the freedom to use tranquilizers to subdue stubborn or frightened animals.
Since over-sedation can be a problem when trying to lure a very large animal into a trailer, the medications that the crew uses are reversible. This helps the detectives rouse overly sedated animals back to a more semi-conscious state.
"All we need is for them to be 'walking drunk,'" says Brown, "and once they're doing that we can pretty much rope them and get them up the ramps."
Whether tranquilizing animals or herding them off of a back-country road, all three members of the Ag Unit are skilled at working under demanding conditions. This flexibility is important, given the diverse terrain and the vast expanse of land that they police.
Over 1,000 square miles in size, Hillsborough County, Fla., sits on the western coast of the state, next to Tampa Bay. The county itself includes the city of Tampa and many smaller cities, but almost 40 percent of the area is devoted to agriculture. And much of this land is home to large livestock, which is, of course, the Ag Unit's bread and butter.
The agricultural detectives work with a varied group of farmers, ranchers, and homeowners within the county, from families who own just one horse to ranchers with multi-million-dollar businesses. While most of the department's work involves fetching large animals, the crew also deals with cases of trespass, criminal mischief, and vandalism. In addition, the three are highly skilled at working animal cruelty cases. They've all been extensively trained in the subject and are required to complete a two-year program in equine cruelty investigations. This training enables them to deal with a variety of situations, from downright neglect to simple ignorance.
"We get people from the city that have moved out to the country and always wanted a horse," says Brown. "When the horse gets sick they have absolutely no idea how to fix it and, by the time we get involved, we often have to make them call a veterinarian. If they don't follow the vet's directions, we'll come back and take their livestock or arrest them."
Usually these cases do not involve outright cruelty; more often the people they deal with are wannabe farmers who don't know that livestock needs regular care. Brown points out that horses have to be wormed every three to four months and that their teeth have to be "floated" regularly. This process involves filing down the sharp edges caused by a horse's 'sideways' chewing. Overlooking this crucial procedure will cause the horse pain as it eats and can result in severe malnutrition.
Interestingly enough, this type of neglect knows no financial boundaries, says Det. Larry Lingo, who has been with Hillsborough County for 22 years, working narcotics first before signing on with the Ag Unit in 1996. He says that the detectives have worked with many low-income farmers who try hard to take care of their animals. But they've also dealt with more than a few wealthy slackers.
"We'll get a call and go to investigate and when we get there we see that the guy ihas a million-dollar barn, but says he can't afford to feed a horse."
The Ag Unit encourages the public to call in leads about possible cases of abuse or neglect, mostly because Hillsborough County is so large that the three detectives have a hard time policing the entire area. Lingo notes, however, that some 80 percent of the calls they receive are unfounded.
"Someone will call and say a horse is skinny but we'll find out that it's because the animal is 23 years old," he says. "Or maybe it has a medical problem but the owners are working on resolving the issue."
One group of residents that the agricultural detectives seldom have a problem with is the large-scale ranchers.
"There are some big ranches in Hillsborough County," says Lingo, who raises cattle and works his own ranch on his off days, "and for these ranchers their livestock is their livelihood. They're making money off of it so they medicate their animals, they keep their fences up; basically they take good care of their livestock."
Unfortunately, these ranchers and farmers are all too often the actual victims of crime. The ammonium nitrate they use to fertilize their crops and boost the protein content of the hay they feed their animals is also one of the key chemical compounds in the making of methamphetamine.
"Recently we had a farmer who noticed that someone was coming in and stealing his ammonium nitrate," says Lingo. "So we set up on that for about a week and a half, and finally caught the guys coming back in the middle of the night."
Whether staking out farms or lassoing cattle, working the Ag Unit almost always involves hard physical labor. Although the three do spend time in the office processing cases and taking calls, they're hardly desk-bound. The majority of their time is spent in the field. And obviously roping and "taking down" very large animals is no easy task.
"Containing livestock can be funny at times," says Lingo with a smile. "I mean, you're talking about a 1,200-pound animal, and if it doesn't want to go where you want it to go things can happen. Even when you immobilize them it doesn't mean that they're not going to stand up. We've all been flipped over and taken down ourselves."
Rough and ready, these officers provide a vital service to the citizens of Hillsborough County. Not unlike the sheriffs of the Old West, after all.
Kelly Kyrik is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado. She is a frequent contributor to POLICE.