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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Jennifer Cherry, left, pins on her commendation ribbon Thursday with help from fellow Animal Care & Control officer Amy Sites.

Animal Care officers recognized

– The bad cases are hard to forget.

Despite the training and preparation, they still get to you. They stick with you – especially the first ones. And for Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control Officer Jennifer Cherry, that first one was an abandoned pit bull she found chained up in the backyard of a long-ago-vacant home.

“I think with the first bad one you’re still in shock,” she said. “She was the sweetest dog. I kept going out every day to make sure she had food or water.”

Cherry and about a dozen of her fellow officers in Animal Care and Control’s Enforcement Division were honored Thursday during a commendation ceremony honoring the work they do.

Attended by Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York, two city councilman and family members, the officers were heralded as being among the best nationwide and for taking on a wealth of advanced training in recent years.

That training has helped them better process crime scenes, use forensics and photography and has led to a huge increase in the number of cases they pursue, officials said.

“Our officers dedicated themselves to their training, and then went out and applied it,” said Belinda Lewis, director of Animal Care & Control. “You can’t force that on anyone.”

With this training, officers are “recognizing and pursuing criminal cases that may have otherwise been filed as simple infractions,” York said in a speech to the audience.

Also honored at the ceremony were Chris Meihls, Fort Wayne Police crime scene technician; Detective Matt Lewis, Fort Wayne Police; and Laura Rowe, Animal Care and Control supervisor, who helped train the officers.

“With all this training, we’ve really been able to ramp up what we do,” said Sgt. Randy Thornton, enforcement supervisor for Animal Care and Control.

Thornton, who was a police officer in the Air Force for 20 years before retiring, has been with Animal Care & Control for seven years. He said he and his colleagues work potential crime scenes just as any other police officer would, which is a big part of the department’s success.

He also said those who take such a job are either animal lovers or somehow connected to law enforcement or both.

And while his previous police background may have prepared him somewhat for some harsh crime scenes involving animals, he still remembers the first really bad case – one involving a neglected dog – he had to work.

“It was an aggressive dog tied to a tree,” Thornton said. “It was a Saint Bernard, and it was so aggressive I couldn’t even help it. I had to call another officer in to help.

“I still remember it.”

But while those cases stay with them, the officers fall back on their training to get through some of the more gruesome aspects of the job.

For Cherry, a lifelong animal lover who began volunteering at Animal Care & Control nine years before becoming an officer, that came in handy when she encountered her first deceased dog.

It was a dog chained up in a yard, just laying there.

“I was very green,” she said. “So I called my supervisor, who is always there for us, and he told me, ‘It’s OK. Remember your training. Remember your training.’ ”

Cherry said she still sometimes thinks of that abandoned pit bull. Somewhere down the line, she said she thinks that dog found a home, though she didn’t know where.

But it’s a reminder of why she does her job: to keep the public and animals safe and to educate people on how to care for their pets and animals so they don’t end up like that pit bull.

“That was just the sweetest dog,” she said.