36 Years on the Wild Side: Life as a Wildlife Officer's Wife
Description: District Wildlife Manager Steve Keefer is retiring at the end of August after 36 years of service with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
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When Steve asked me to marry him 39 years ago, I knew that his dream was to become a wildlife officer. I just didn’t know how wild our life would be when that dream came true!
Prior to working here, he spent four years in law enforcement in Grand County. It’s where we met and married. (We tell people we met in jail, because I was a detention officer when he was hired).
Our daughter Michelle was born in Kremmling in March 1986, and Steve went into training with (then) Division of Wildlife that June as a district wildlife manager (DWM). At the end of training, he was assigned to the Las Animas District. We moved down here in January 1987.
There are endless stories about wildlife encounters. I came home once to find a young golden eagle sitting on the arm of our couch. It had escaped the crate. I called dispatch and told them that Steve needed to get home soon, and if the eagle had gotten one of my cats, he was going to be in trouble. All felines were accounted for.
We also had a raccoon (another escapee—this time Steve left the crate in the garage) hanging off the outside door. Of course, Steve wasn’t home when that happened, either.
Another raccoon story concerns the large, aggressive, angry male raccoon that Steve caught with a catch pole. The raccoon passed out, so he put the animal, still attached to the catch pole, in the back of his truck. He was driving through Las Animas on the way to a wildlife area to release it when he noticed that the raccoon had woken up and was trying to climb over the side of the truck bed. Steve drove through town, swerving this way and that, to keep the critter in the truck. By the time he got to the wildlife area, he said the raccoon seemed a bit dizzy.
During one of the times that John Martin was very full, Steve took the boat out with two of his Youth in Natural Resources employees. Michelle and I went along. We came upon a tree in the middle of the water, with a baby porcupine in it. He really didn’t have a choice, with four females in the boat. We took an oar and pushed it out of the tree into a cooler we had on board. We later released it on one of the wildlife areas.
Then there’s the great possum rescue. Steve was called to the La Junta High School football field about an opossum stuck in a trash can. He didn’t realize at the time that there was a game going on. The trash can was a fifty-gallon drum, and it was located near the 50-yard line. There were about 200 people in the stands. The announcer paused the game and gave a play-by-play account of Steve procuring the opossum, using a catch pole. Because there were so many people there, he didn’t think it would look good if he picked up the opossum with the pole, so he kind of taught it to walk up the steps, to the cheers of the crowd. It also got a free ride to a wildlife area.
I don’t know how many baby owls and other raptors he sent to the raptor center. The birds never seemed to like Steve, more than likely because they knew he’s a predator. Michelle or I would usually be the ones to check on them. Once we had a pronghorn fawn and a deer fawn in our spare bathroom overnight until he could get them to the rehabilitator.
Another time I, as a CPW volunteer, I relayed a mountain lion kitten to Pueblo to meet another volunteer who took it on to Wetmore. I’m a cat lover, and I wanted so much to pet it, but the growls, hisses and barred teeth reminded me that it wasn’t a good idea. He was one ticked off cat!
One of Steve’s favorite parts of his job was doing educational programs. From school and library programs to TEN classes, Project WILD, Otero Kids College, fishing derbies….let’s just say he did a bunch. I got used to kids coming up to me when I subbed at the schools, asking me if I was Mr. Keefer’s wife. But my favorite was when I was the elementary school librarian. Steve told me a boy came up to him at John Martin and asked if he was “Mr. Mrs. Keefer”!
He has always encouraged young people to consider wildlife as a career and took many of them on ride a longs in his truck. He feels it is important to get more people interested in this career.
Shortly after we met, I became very aware that Steve was an avid hunter. For years he had told me for years about how good rattlesnake is to eat. He told me it tasted a bit like scallops. I like scallops. One day I came home and found a note on the table: “There’s a snake in the refrigerator. Love, Steve.” Now, thinking of scallops, I’m thinking of small pieces….but when I opened the refrigerator door, there was a coiled, naked snake in a plastic bag on the shelf. Not exactly what I was expecting!
I did, however, think that it was kind of good when he cooked it. In fact, rattlesnake was one of our daughter’s favorite foods. When we went to first grade back to school night, the kids had all written out their favorite foods. They sat four to a table. The signs over Michelle’s table said, “pizza, pizza, pizza, rattlesnake.”
I’m not that thrilled about deer and antelope, but I had eaten elk before, and I kept waiting for Steve to get one. He did, one Christmas Eve. It happened to be when I’d just had foot surgery. He’d shot a turkey earlier, and we were thawing it out to have for Christmas dinner. Christmas Day was spent with him butchering the elk in the garage, and me hobbling around trying to get the turkey in the oven. Fortunately, we didn’t have any company that year.
Another Christmas, we were at our pastor’s for an open house. Steve was talking to her husband, and just as he said, “I cut her up in the garage,” a woman walked around the corner. Her eyes got huge, and I quickly explained, “he’s talking about a deer!”
He’s also been on many human rescues, including rescuing a man whose truck was in the middle of a fire. Steve had to talk him out of the truck, because he was scared, but he was able to get him out before the fire got worse. He also crawled across mud flats to rescue a woman whose jet ski had gotten stuck in shallow water. There have been numerous on-the-water rescues, and rescues in Picketwire Canyon. Why people won’t wear life jackets or take enough water on hikes, I can’t understand. There have been way too many body recoveries, too. That’s the least favorite part of the job.
He has always thought it was his duty to assist other agencies as well as become involved in the community. He’s provided back-up for local police, sheriff’s departments, State Patrol, and fire and ambulance departments. He’s been involved in 4-H, Boy Scouts, water safety council, the school district accountability committee, and the Las Animas Bent County Fire Board, of which he’s currently president. He even ran for school board once. I threatened to vote for his opponent. I didn’t, but I have to say I was relieved he didn’t get it. That was back before they were issued cell phones, so we were already getting a lot of calls on the home phone—at all hours.
Through the years, he came across quite a few, shall we say, characters. There were people in various states of dress, numerous inebriated folks, people out parking; the guy who he contacted (in full uniform, with name tag), who asked him if he knew his friend “Steve Keefer”; the woman who called because there was an owl in a tree, and she thought he’d want to come and get it so he could stuff it because owls were endangered; another woman who was very concerned because she saw an owl sitting on a tree branch, and was adamant that owls don’t do that, they just sit in holes in trees.
Another call he got was from a lady who was upset that there was a snake in her sink. She demanded that he come and remove it immediately. He told her he couldn’t. It went down the drain, but then came back up. She screamed, and he heard a loud bang. She had taken a hammer and killed the snake, along with her porcelain sink.
More recently, there was the man who came up to talk to Steve while he was directing traffic at the scene of an accident. The guy was telling him stories. Every so often he would strum a note or two on the ukulele he was carrying. A pickup hauling a horse trailer almost hit both of them, but fortunately they were able to get out of the way. The ukulele player decided to keep walking. After Steve cleared the scene, he saw the guy walking along the roadway and asked if he’d like a ride. The man refused: “You’re dangerous to be around. People almost get killed!”
Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who think DWMs have no other life than their jobs. Just the other week, a man called him and said he had to talk to him about wildlife issues. He said he wanted to meet him in person, and the only day he could do that was Thursday. Steve said that wouldn’t work. The man said he had to. Steve explained he had to take me to a couple of doctor appointments. The man actually said, “You have a wife?”
I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to him on a day off (usually a weekday) and started to ask him work-related questions. When he’s tried to explain that he was taking a day off, they have been shocked that he’d be off on a weekday. “Must be nice!” But, he works weekends, so to get days off, he takes time off in the middle of the week—or tries to.
DWM’s also work many holidays, and always all three-day weekends: Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. By the way, DWMs don’t get overtime pay. They do get comp time, but that frequently doesn’t get used. A 40-hour week is a rarity, especially with three-day weekends and hunting seasons. 80-hour weeks have happened more than a few times.
What has really puzzled us is all the people who have called him about something work-related and told him they knew he had been working the previous weekend, but they didn’t want to bother him while he was working. But they can bother him while he’s trying to spend some time with his family? That makes no sense!
Let’s not forget the various injuries he’s sustained over the years, starting with training. That one involved a horse, a mountain trail, and a slipped cinch. As I recall he told me he made a three-point landing: chin, hand, and knee. Stitches were involved. Once he was on district, there was knee surgery. Then shoulder surgery. Dog bites.
Disasters? Floods, blizzards, drought…not to mention tornados, of course. Apparently, he felt the need to emulate Pecos Bill. Seriously, when your husband walks in the door and says, “I was in a tornado,” it does tend to get your attention! It really hit home when we went out to the site the next day and found that five power poles had been knocked over—one had even been blown across the road into the field on the other side. He must have been at the north end of that, as he did notice power lines were down, called it in, then went the other direction. He was fortunate; he could have had a power pole fall onto his truck.
There are many, many more stories. One of our friends is always asking for “Steve stories.” We might have to write a book.
Steve is retiring at the end of August. I have to say that it has been a wild ride, even without tornados. But I’m glad I was part of it. I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished. Now we embark the rest of the story---which I doubt will be very tame.
Photo Gallery by Sue Keefer
Cute but not cuddly. This mountain lion kitten was taken to a rehabilitator after being found in La Junta.