On the afternoon of April 12, 2018, veterinarian Kevin Smith was headed to an important meeting, pulling him away from his regular clinical work at the Hyannis Animal Hospital in West Yarmouth.
The Cape Cod Regional Law Enforcement Council SWAT team would soon be training six medics who had recently been granted permission to work in active warm zones, where SWAT team members aren’t considered to be in immediate danger, but aren’t entirely safe from harm.
As the veterinarian for the Yarmouth Police Department’s three K-9 units, Smith had been asked to brainstorm ideas for how the medics might be trained to treat injured police dogs.
Smith, along with an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive and a physician who works as a SWAT medic, sat down to consider plausible scenarios that might require a medic to treat a police K-9. The three discussed situations ranging from dogs experiencing heat stroke or a drug overdose, to the possibility of a dog and an officer down.
“We went through a lot of different scenarios,” Smith said. “It just happened to be that one of the scenarios we had drawn up that we should train them on happened two hours later.”
Shortly after 3 p.m. that afternoon, Nero, a Yarmouth police patrol K-9, was shot in the neck while helping to serve a search warrant at home in Marstons Mills. Nero’s handler, Yarmouth police Sgt. Sean Gannon was also shot and did not survive.
After being trapped for hours in the attic of the home with Gannon’s alleged killer, Nero was carried out by SWAT officers and handed to retired Yarmouth K-9 officer Peter McClelland, who had trained Nero as a puppy. McClelland scooped Nero up, and the pair was rushed by a Barnstable police cruiser to Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists in Dennis, where Nero underwent emergency surgery to repair his trachea.
Despite the fact that Smith and others had been working just hours earlier to develop training protocols that could help save police dogs, state laws that prohibit emergency responders from treating working animals and transporting them by ambulance prevented Nero from being legally cared for by medics at the scene.
“The night that Nero was shot, they had ambulances available,” Smith said, “but they knew they would get in trouble if they put the dog in the ambulance, so he got put in the back of a squad car.”
The next morning, when Nero was stable, he was moved to Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists in Buzzards Bay, where the organization’s trauma center is located. If medics had been allowed to fully assess the extent of Nero’s injuries at the scene, Nero might have been brought directly to the Buzzards Bay trauma center on the night he was shot, according to McClelland.
“We might’ve bypassed going to Dennis first,” McClelland said.
Nero spent about a week recovering at the Buzzards Bay facility, during which McClelland and other K-9 officers stayed by his side 24 hours a day. After about two months recouping under the constant care of McClelland, Nero was given a clean bill of health.
“He is totally recovered,” McClelland said Thursday. “You would never know that anything had happened to him. He’s back to being his old self.”
Just weeks after Nero was shot, Smith and others were notified by state officials that because of the law, they would not be allowed to move forward with training medics on how to treat injured K-9s. For Smith, hearing that news made it clear the law needed to change.
“There’s a wealth of documentation in medical literature that supports that the golden hour in people and dogs is the same,” Smith said about the 60-minute window of time after a traumatic injury when an individual stands the best chance of being saved by medical treatment. “If you’re treated before you get to the hospital, your survival percentage goes up dramatically.”
Smith’s personal connection to the Gannon family also motivated him to act. For years, he had served as the veterinarian for the Gannons’ three dogs, including Nero. During that time, Smith had come to consider Sean a friend.
“I worked with Sean a lot,” Smith said. “We saw him almost once a week, if not more. So there’s a little bit of emotional motivation behind all this, besides just doing the right thing.”
Last May, Smith was among a group of Cape Cod law enforcement officials, emergency responders and state legislators who met to begin the process of changing the law.
“It was a big table with a lot of people,” Smith said. “Everybody that was interested in getting this thing going. And those of us who wanted it going didn’t have any clue politically how to do it.”
State Reps. Timothy Whelan, R-Brewster, and William Crocker, R-Centerville, provided guidance for how to advance the bill to the Legislature, and Smith sought advice from Alabama veterinarian Lee Palmer, who has worked to pass similar laws in other states. Smith and Palmer drafted the language that was submitted to state’s legislative counsel.
Changing the law would not only help patrol dogs like Nero, who are at risk of being injured by a perpetrator, Smith said, but it could also save the lives of drug-sniffing dogs who might suffer an overdose and require treatment with naloxone, or search and rescue dogs whose work can sometimes lead to heat exhaustion.
The bill requires first responders who treat police dogs to receive training that follows standards approved by either a local veterinarian or a protocol being drafted by the Tufts School of Veterinary medicine, and by the Office of Emergency Medical Services.
Under the bill, a first responder can only perform a procedure on a dog if they’re already qualified to perform that same procedure on a human, Smith said.
“There’s a huge carryover from people to dogs, everything’s very very similar,” he said. “But if you’re not qualified to do it on people, we don’t want you to do it on the dog either.”
With 63 legislators signed on as co-sponsors, Crocker is confident the legislation will pass. More than 100 individuals — including police and fire chiefs — have offered to testify in favor of the bill when it comes up for a hearing, he said.
“It’s really a lot of the first responders who pushed this,” Crocker said. “They were the ones who had to sit on their hands, not being allowed to do anything by statute when they knew that Nero was injured. They want to see their K-9 officers treated as well as their human counterparts.”
McClelland, who still sees Nero on a regular basis, said he’s grateful to Smith for taking up the cause.
“It’s one of those things that hopefully we’ll never have to use, or it would be very very rare that it would have to be used, but it’s nice to know that we can give them the best opportunity to get treatment possible,” he said.