By Gretchen Schlosser
WILLMAR — Cato, the 12-year-old German shepherd serving as the Willmar Police Department’s canine unit, is retiring due to health problems.
According to Police Chief David Wyffels, the dog is having hip problems and is not expected to live much longer.
“Cato’s not long for this world,” Wyffels said Wednesday. Officer Craig Lange, who has been Cato’s handler since the department received the dog in 2002, will continue to care for Cato as the dog’s time grows short.
The dog last worked in November and would likely have retired this coming year anyway, Wyffels said. The dog’s retirement and budget constraints mean that the department will not have a canine officer for at least the 2013 budget year.
Wyffels had included $13,000 for purchasing a new dog and the required training in the department’s 2013 budget, but that funding was trimmed during the budgeting process. Plus, at the time when those decisions were made, police officials expected Cato to continue working into 2013 and possibly into 2014.
Now, the department will monitor the impact of not having a canine officer and will respond accordingly, Wyffels said.
“Cato’s replacement is nowhere in the 2013 budget,” Wyffels said. “Right now, we will wait and see.”
In addition, the department is now at 32 sworn officers and, as the chief frankly put it Wednesday, he will argue for another human officer before seeking a new canine officer.
But that doesn’t mean the Willmar Police Department lacks appreciation for all that the big German shepherd has done in his career.
“Cato will be missed around here,” Wyffels said. “Every officer appreciated working with him.”
Cato was 13 months old when he began working in 2002. Lange was chosen from a number of officers who applied to be the canine handler. The dog and officer were trained by Fort Collins Protection Dogs Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo., before the pair began their service together.
The dog was trained to track both people and drugs, locating drugs that were seized on 132 occasions during his career. The estimated street value of the drugs was $42,245, according to statistics prepared by Wyffels.
Cato also helped the department with 178 property seizures, usually vehicles in which drugs were located, at an estimated value of $168,552.
Over his 10-year career, Cato was deployed a total of 1,031 times, including 572 job-related deployments, 438 training deployments and 21 demonstrations. He and Lange also assisted other law enforcement agencies 131 times.
Among the dog’s drug finds was a case where Lange stopped a vehicle that was running drugs through the area. Cato found both drugs and guns in the vehicle. The local case was then connected to a larger federal investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Cato completed the link in that investigation,” Lange said.
While the dog’s main purpose was finding narcotics, Lange and Wyffels noted occasions when the canine provided services that cannot be measured in property seizures, dollars or the amount of drugs kept off the city’s streets.
Last year, a man with suicidal intentions inflicted what could have been lethal injuries to himself and then wandered into a field. The man would have died of those injuries, except that Cato found him first. The man received the medical care he needed and lives on today, Wyffels said.
“Cato has done things in his career that you don’t put a price on,” Wyffels said.
The dog has also provided Lange with backup support, just by being there and barking, that has prevented Lange from struggling to restrain or having to chase a suspect.
“I have yet to fight with a suspect or chase a suspect when Cato was with me,” Lange said.
The dog’s retirement means an assignment change for Lange, who along with Officer Dustin Vander Hagen, will restart the department’s Gang Enforcement Team. Due to the staffing constraints of the department, the Gang Enforcement Team had been reduced to just one officer, Del Wagner, earlier this year. Wagner retired in June, which left the team on the sidelines for the last six months.
By Gretchen Schlosser