Dozens of police officers and their families, plus local citizens and animal lovers gathered at in Palm Harbor on Tuesday to honor three former members of the area’s K9 service units.
The three canines were laid to rest in a special section of the Curlew Road cemetery called the Garden of Heroes, where the remains of 46 former K9 law enforcement dogs are buried.
The ceremony, the sixth such memorial at Curlew Hills, was the idea of President and CEO Keenan Knopke, who covers the burial expenses for all the K9 service dogs, regardless of how or when they passed.
“We always talk about us, but we never talk about the service that these dogs do every day,” Knopke said prior to the ceremony. “They protect us, they find people, they catch bad people, and they kind of get shuffled to the side as they retire.”
“In many cases, they’re the ones who have kept the officer alive. That’s the importance of this ceremony, to remember them for what they did.”
Officers from the K9 units of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department were on hand to offer recollections of the loyal partners they have lost, as well as to inform people what integral parts of their daily lives these dogs become.
“Even if you made a conscious effort not to bond with the dog, it’s impossible,“ Clearwater Police Sgt and K9 unit commander Jimmy Hall said. “You’re 40 hours a week working with them and 24/7 at home, so it’s constant.”
Hall, who is on his fourth K9 service dog and was there to honor his previous partner, Mako, who passed away last year, said it takes a special person and a lifestyle adjustment to be a K9 officer.
"The dog is the center of my universe,” he stated.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Clark Wagner, whose former partner, Cuda, was one of the first K9s buried in the Garden of Heroes, expressed gratitude for Knopke and Curlew Hills for providing area forces with this final resting place.
“Keenan has been great to us here. It started off with us looking for information…for a memorial…at our kennel facility, and he said we’re going to do a Garden of Heroes and we would love to provide this service.”
Wagner acknowledges the presence of such a facility, one of the few of its kind in the state, has made parting with fallen K9s easier on their handlers.
“We have some officers who have (kept the remains) at their homes for a long time. When they realize there is a service like this, it’s easier to let go knowing they’re coming to a good place. It’s very reassuring for the handlers and their families.”