A white pickup truck bobs and rocks down a trail on a bright summer morning at the 4G Ranch. Pasco sheriff's Cpl. John Hayhurst is in the passenger's seat. He's listening to ranch manager Chad Sasser list the security breaches he has had in the past year.
The week before, somebody dumped an old recliner near the 3,000-acre ranch's property line that runs along State Road 52. A hunting season ago, he caught some people firing a shotgun at some deer from their spot pulled off the road. A man wandered on to the property just a few days ago, looking to pick hallucinogenic mushrooms out of cow patties. And with the price of beef ramping up, Sasser says he's worried that people might fall back into the practice of stealing cattle.
But these days he feels more assured knowing he can call the sheriff's new three-man Environmental Crimes Unit. Even for something as minor as a fence break, Hayhurst, Cpl. Scott Keener or Sgt. Troy Law will be there to help.
The guys in the new unit are trained to handle anything livestock related: cows, horses, pigs, goats, sometimes chickens and ducks. They take trespassing and poaching calls. The team of Pasco natives, each with a background in farming and ranching, monitors illegal dumping and county code violations. From their fully loaded pickup trucks, they patrol forests, pastures and orange groves.
"Society encroaches on (ranchers)," says Law, "when they're just trying to make their livelihood."
Hayhurst, Law and Keener leave the ranch and head south to a home on Bahia Loop in Land O'Lakes where they've been monitoring a case of emaciated horses. Law says these cases are always sad. Generally, it's not a lack of caring that makes people starve their livestock. It's money. The deputies try to give second chances when they can, for the owners to give away their horses to people who can afford to keep them healthy.
"That's our passion, is to give these animals a better life and better health," says Law.
The three deputies walk out into the pasture where they expect to see a palomino that's more underweight than they'd like. Its owner agreed to give the other horses to owners in the area, but as the deputies pass under the fence, they're greeted by the palomino and two others — a painted and a quarter horse. They look the horses over and agree that their weight has improved. Then they break out a roll of barbed wire and replace a section of the fence that had too much slack in it.
Still, they plan to come back later and meet with the owner.
As they return to their trucks, the radio screeches about two Black Angus heifers roaming a Dade City neighborhood. The trucks turn east on SR 52.
They arrive at this situation: The heifers have made their way inside the fenced yard of a home. Across Bayhead Road is a pasture from which two calves are mooing at the heifers. The deputies correctly presume the cows came from the pasture on the north side of the road, where the calves are.
Now there are two things to do. First, find how the cows got out. Second, get them back to where they belong.
Law follows a constellation of cow patties through neighbors' yards until he finds a break in the fence. It's in a muddy spot near a creek at the corner of the pasture, close to the road. The deputies consider their options for repairing the fence.
Just then, the cows' owner, Dawn Naused, pulls up in her pickup and begins apologizing for the escape.
It's no matter, the deputies tell her. They position their trucks to block the road and guide the cows out of the yard and toward the pasture gate that Naused has unlocked for them.
"Let's go!" Hayhurst calls to the cows. "Go to your calves, come on."
The cows trot past him and into the pasture, where they're reunited. The deputies follow and head to the muddy creekside where Naused has already begun repairing the fence. They drive posts into the mud and run a spool of barbed wire between them, then nail the wire in place. Naused thanks them profusely, and they chuckle about the whole situation.
The sun sinks low over a treeline at the far end of the field. Most other people will be leaving their offices about now, maybe loosening their ties.
Hayhurst, Law and Keener are knocking mud off their boots before they climb back in their trucks.