The press release that popped into e-mails in area newsrooms at mid-evening last Tuesday was startling and, perhaps, met with a bit of disbelief.

In the release, Sheriff Steve Kessler broke the news that the department’s K-9 unit had lost yet another member to illness. The fact that it was the third death in about six weeks’ time was startling — and it was hard to believe they could have such bad luck.

The first of the dogs to die, Niko, had been retired for a couple of years, but was still remembered fondly by the unit. But when Wilbur, a tracking bloodhound, and Herk, a cross-trained Belgian Malinois, were lost to illness in consecutive weeks, it left every member of the unit devastated, Kessler said.

“The loss of these two extraordinary animals is nothing short of a tragedy for the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office,” he added.

K-9s are invaluable assets to law enforcement. Without their highly developed sense of smell, tons of drugs would make it to the street, fugitives — or lost children — would not be found.

They protect their human counterparts and are not afraid to take down an armed suspect and keep him down until their partner arrives to snap on the cuffs.

Herk had a “keen” nose and a reputation as one of the best drug dogs in the region, said Sheriff Kessler.

Wilbur was a tracking machine, according to his handler, Sgt. J.R. McMullen. In one instance, Wilbur found a 2-year-old who had wandered a mile away from his home. The family and search parties looked for hours, but Wilbur managed to find the boy in an hour.

The Fayette Sheriff’s K-9 unit is by no means wiped out by the loss of these fine animals. Four dogs remain on duty. All but one, 2-1/2-year-old bloodhound Dixie, are aging; Zeus and Boss are 9 and Riko is nearly 10. The health of the three older dogs is deteriorating.

“The K-9 Unit is an integral part and important part of our service commitment to the citizens of Fayette County,” the sheriff said.

As such, he wants to be able to keep the unit at its full strength, putting the department in “desperate need” of funding to purchase new dogs. He said they are looking at a total cost of $50,000, as the cost of one K-9 cross-trained in narcotics detection/tracking and suspect apprehension or one trained in bomb and explosive detection is between $12,000 and $15,000. A big price tag for just one dog? Only if you look on the surface. The benefits of the K-9s more than make up for the cost, in our view. We can think of few better ways to spend your money for the greater good.

Donations for the Fayette K-9 unit can be dropped off at sheriff’s detachments in Fayetteville, Danese or Smithers, or can be mailed to the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, PO Box 509, Fayetteville, WV 25840. Indicate on the check that it is a donation for the K-9 unit.

All counties and cities that have K-9 units could face situations similar to Fayette’s and they also have day-to-day expenses of food and veterinary care. Check with your local officials if they could use financial assistance.

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