First responders and Chatham Ag Extension partner for training

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PITTSBORO — Members of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office joined fellow first responders, animal control officers, and emergency management professionals April 12 for an Animal Welfare and Officer Safety course provided by Chatham County’s Cooperative Extension.

The potentially lifesaving program is now coordinated by Kristina Britt, a North Carolina Ag Extension Agent who began serving in Chatham County in 2020. The course is designed with the intent to protect both lives and property by educating first responders on safe animal handling techniques. It also covers various animal-related laws and ordinances, tips for conducting animal abuse or neglect investigations, resources available to first responders and livestock owners, and more.

The course, offered for the first time in 2019, is the brainchild of N.C. Cooperative Extension Specialized Agent Ashley Robbins and Chatham County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Sara Pack.

“Sara [Pack] and I recognized a gap in available training for law enforcement when it comes to safe and effective animal handling,” said Robbins. “As farmers and animal lovers ourselves, it was important to us to create a joint training program that would benefit first responders as well as the agricultural communities we admire and serve.”

The resulting course of instruction became the first of its kind in the state, incorporating live horses, goats, pigs, sheep, and cattle for participants to observe and engage. Britt has since used her expertise to revamp and expand the program to provide students with more hands-on learning opportunities and resources based on student-generated feedback. To date, the program has welcomed participants from agencies in Chatham, Moore, Lee, Randolph, Mecklenburg, Caldwell, Forsyth, Orange and Durham counties.

Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson was the first sheriff to endorse the training, sending dozens of deputies to participate and learn from experts in the field. Roberson says some of the most serious injuries ever sustained by Chatham County deputies were animal-inflicted, so the training is both necessary and appreciated.

“Any training we can provide first responders to keep them safe, or any additional tools or resources we can give them to improve positive outcomes, should be seriously considered,” Roberson said. “This particular program is excellent and continues to improve every year. I believe all law enforcement can benefit from this training — not only the content, but the opportunity to form partnerships with those in the agriculture industry as well.”

In addition to Robbins and Britt, program instructors this year included Randolph County Extension Agent Adam Lawing, large animal veterinarian Dr. Karen Jordan (member of the board of directors for the National Institute for Animal Agriculture [NIAA]; chairperson, producer member, and Southeast Area councilmember for Dairy Farmers of America [DFA]; chairperson of the National Milk Producers Federation [NMPF] Animal Health and Wellbeing Committee; former chairperson of the Technical Writing Group of the NMPF National Dairy FARM Program; former Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee representative for the American Veterinary Association; and co-owner and operator of Brush Creek Swiss Farms of Siler City), and Chatham County native and renowned horsemanship expert Jim Thomas (owner, instructor and President of Bar T Horsemanship in Pittboro; selected annual competitor for the Bureau of Land Management and Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Extreme Mustang Makeover; and past speaker at the Best Horse Practices Summit). Local farmers Tucker Withington (co-owner and operator of Lilly Den Farm in Goldston) and Cory Robbins (co-operator of Brush Creek Swiss Farms in Siler City) provided live animals for training demonstrations to allow students the opportunity to apply and practice their new skills.

Britt says her goal is to equip officers with the tools they need to make appropriate decisions in the field while also protecting farmers’ assets. Both Britt and Robbins plan to offer more training in the future, potentially taking the training on the road to reach other counties and law enforcement agencies across the state.

“I personally enjoy the opportunity to network with law enforcement, hear their stories and concerns, and learn about different ordinances and policies outside of Chatham County,” Britt said. “One common complaint I hear from different agencies is that there tends to be a high turnover rate among first responders who regularly deal with animals, like those in Animal Control roles. It’s a high-stress job, but we hope this training helps ease some of that burden.”

Pack says she enjoys hearing feedback from students who have completed the course, especially when they report feeling more knowledgeable and confident in their ability to safely approach, manage, and move livestock.

“Some first responders who attend these classes admit they’ve never seen a cow or sheep up close, so they haven’t had the opportunity to learn or practice ideal animal handling techniques,” says Pack. “Learning something as simple as how or where to stand to gain better control of an animal, or factors to take into consideration when conducting an animal welfare investigation, may help prevent the injury or death of an officer or animal.”

“We have a long-standing agricultural tradition in Chatham County, and our local farmers and ranchers deserve the highest quality of service we can provide… That means maintaining an open line of communication and participating in more training opportunities like this one,” Roberson said. “We are grateful to Farm Bureau of Chatham County for their continued partnership — beyond this training, they have been steadfast supporters of the Barn to Badge initiative and our Animal Resource Center (ARC). We also owe thanks to the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association and Southern States of Siler City for their sponsorship and support of education, local law enforcement, and the Chatham County agricultural community.”

For more information or updates on future training sessions, contact Kristina Britt at kristina_britt@ncsu.edu.

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