Life lessons learned from wildlife officer | Jennifer Anderson

The following is written by columnist Jennifer Anderson:

I was 12 years old the first time I heard the game warden’s barking voice lecture a crowd on the importance of preserving and respecting wildlife. His sermon was delivered in a nearly dark room at sixth-grade camp and was accompanied by the hum of an old-school projector. He clicked through a slideshow featuring crisply photographed animals in their natural habitat as well as those animals who had met the fate of what the game warden loathed most – poachers. I remember thinking, “Whoa, this dude is serious!”

I’m so grateful I had the smarts to keep that comment to myself and not address Bruce Richards as “dude” to his face. That would have surely led to a top-notch tongue lashing. (I ended up receiving several from him during the years to come.)

We met again that spring in a more intimate setting. He was one of a handful of dads that would spend the next six years coaching, encouraging and tolerating a group of girls while shuttling them to and corralling them on softball fields around the Pacific Northwest. That same barking voice that imprinted the anti-poaching message back at sixth-grade camp, helped impress a number of athletic fundamentals and life lessons on this big-banged teenager. Although he was a Vietnam veteran and a two-time Iron Man finisher, one of his greatest accomplishments, in my eyes, was teaching this chunky, awkward middle school girl to run “like an athlete, not like a girl.” It’s still not a pretty sight, but he didn’t have much to work with.I never had to wonder where I stood with Bruce. He told me when he was proud of me and he told me when I screwed up, all with emphasis and eye contact. Smart remarks were often muttered under his breath, but the important stuff like, “What the hell were you thinking?” and “Good job!” came out loud and clear.

After I graduated, grew up and had a classroom of my own sixty-graders, he came to deliver his “sermon on the mount” (Department of Fish and Wildlife style) to my fresh batch of 11- and 12-year-olds. His slideshow still featured his own wildlife photography but was conveniently littered with photos of a young Mrs. Anderson kneeling down next to a baby fawn in the Richards’ kitchen, sporting a red polyester Enumclaw Chieftains uniform and posing in high-waisted, acid washed jean shorts next to a bear trap on wheels. My students found this wildly amusing, but were mainly interested in his message. He held them captive for more than an hour at a time telling stories of encountering bears, elk and cougar in the wild while on the job, most of which were true. My personal favorites were the stories where he claimed to have died in the end. The kids would hang on every word, listening in amazement and many were actually convinced he lost his life to that angry mama bear – until he pointed out that he was still here.

After Bruce’s visit, nearly every student longed to become a Fish and Wildlife officer when they grew up. All of them were all interested in photography and were ready to do everything they could to save the environment and be good people. He made quite a lasting impression on those troupes of middle school students.

I have to admit, he made quite an impression on their teacher as well. I have a hard time passing up an opportunity to take a quick photo when I see a herd of elk sauntering around near my house or an eagle swooping down to snatch up my neighbor’s cat. This is a direct result of the game warden’s voice in my head. For the same reason, if I’m ever being chased and find it necessary to run, I will make sure I run with my heels touching the ground as well as my toes and keep my arms tucked in. I also know that an outfielder’s first step should always be back and that the Department of Fish and Wildlife does not reimburse for damages caused to a person’s car when a coyote runs in front of it; even raising the question results in aforementioned tongue-lashing.

A local news station recently reported that the game warden gave his “last educational presentation” with his bear dog, Mishka. Ha! Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes listening to Bruce is laughing out loud at that statement. Nearly any conversation with him could be considered an “educational presentation.” I am fairly certain there will be plenty of opportunities for many “educational presentations” in his upcoming retirement. If you doubt me on this, just request a field trip with him to see some daffodils in the woods. I guarantee he’ll leave a lasting impression with you as well.