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A Times Editorial

17-year servant has earned compassion

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

The facts are indisputable.

Animal Control Officer Hank Baggett shot and killed a feral cat that would not come down from its perch atop a 50-foot tree. It's also true that Baggett filed a misleading report and failed to give his boss a heads-up about the unfortunate incident.

As a result of Baggett's actions, his supervisor, Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno, has recommended he be fired. Following a lengthy hearing last week, County Administrator Richard Wesch is weighing the evidence and is expected to make a final decision in a few days.

As Baggett's career hangs in the balance, we urge Wesch to do as Baggett did when he killed the cat:

Have mercy.

Baggett has been a county employee for 17 years, 15 of them in the Animal Control office. He has been the director of that department for the past 11 years. With the exception of one reprimand in 2000, also issued by Poliseno for failing to keep him informed, Baggett's record is spotless. This incident is simply not worth ending the career of a dedicated, experienced employee who found himself in a difficult situation and used his best judgment to solve the problem.

No one would envy the decision Baggett was faced with that day in February. Another Animal Control officer had tried to trap the wild cat after residents reported it was stranded in a 50- or 60-foot tree. After the third day of what some witnesses described as "howling" by the cat, Baggett assessed the situation and and determined the animal was in distress. Unable to use a tranquilizer gun because of the distance, Baggett tried to shoot through the limb on which the cat was perched. Unsuccessful, he employed the measure of last resort to put the cat out of its misery; he felled it with one shot from his rifle.

The alternative would have been to leave the cat alone with little hope it would find its way down the tree before it starved, or with the possibility it would become the prey of a creature further up the food chain.

Who, more than Baggett, could be in better position to evaluate and act in that circumstance?

Over the years Baggett and other Animal Control officers have routinely rescued countless animals. Most times, and especially with feral cats, those efforts result only in the animals being killed a few days later at the shelter. More than 5,000 animals a year are euthanized in Citrus County.

It is a regrettable reality, but just as certain and unfortunate as the reality that dictates animals occasionally be put down less humanely.

Baggett's treatment of this animal was humane and merciful. Even the animal rights group Humanitarians of Florida has conceded it understands Baggett's decision.

Clearly, Baggett erred by misleading others about details of the cat's demise. His attorney says Baggett did so only because he knew it could draw criticism, which it has. Meanwhile, Poliseno's beef seems to be rooted in his displeasure that Baggett does not always brief his boss about potential controversies. That is a subjective behavior that must be learned before it is punished.

We are hopeful Wesch will be more compassionate toward Baggett than Poliseno has recommended. Although Baggett should be remorseful for misrepresenting the truth and vow to not do it again, a decade and a half of training and service in a difficult and mostly thankless job should not be discarded casually.

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