32 years of watching over hunters, anglers - and a rhino
Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 2:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 2:41 p.m.
When the phone rang at 2 a.m., Jeff Summers wasn't sure that he was hearing correctly. It sounded to the sleepy game warden that the dispatcher had said there was a rhino in the road.
Summers climbed into his truck and drove to Alligator Alley, a section of Interstate 75 connecting Naples and Florida's East Coast, fully expecting to see a big wild hog or some other normal Florida creature.
Instead, he drove up to a full-grown rhinoceros standing calmly in the middle of the highway.
Summers rubbed his eyes and thought, "Have I been drinking?"
A tire had blown out on the truck hauling the massive beast, and the drivers had unloaded it so they could replace the tire. Now, they couldn't get it back onto the truck.
They had left it to fetch the animal's handler, who signaled for the rhino to walk onto the truck.
"It followed like a puppy dog," Summers recalled.
When Summers, 54, of Alachua, thinks back on his long career as a wildlife officer, that bizarre episode in the early 1980s comes immediately to mind.
After 32 years with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Summers has done and seen it all. He has handled boating accidents, hunting violations and everything in between. But it all comes to an end in June when he officially retires.
Not every incident has played out as peacefully as the rhino incident.
One day, Summers was driving and saw a teen, soaking wet, walking in the other direction.
He turned around and drove over, asking the 15-year-old if he needed any help. The teen responded with a blank stare before reaching for a pistol stuffed in the back of his pants. Summers grabbed him before he could pull out the weapon.
The teen had stolen the gun and cash from a gas station in Everglades City and ran into a lake to escape the police.
During the teen's trial, Summers recalled, the judge asked him what he was going to do with the pistol. He pointed toward Summers and said, "I was going to kill him."
"It hit me harder in the courtroom than it did out there," Summers said.
Now a recruiter for the FWC's North Central Region, Summers spent a recent day at the Reitz Union colonnade on the UF campus speaking to students and answering questions about the agency.
During a break, he sat at a picnic table and reminisced.
Born in Fairmont, W.Va., he moved with his parents to Bradenton when he was 2 years old. He grew up in the outdoors, hunting, fishing and camping with the Boy Scouts.
Later, his love for television police shows sparked an interest in law enforcement. He wanted to save people, to be a hero.
He studied law enforcement at Manatee Junior College, now the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.
Summers became a police officer, but after awhile he became restless, bored with the routine.
His wife, Vicki Summers, suggested he combine his interests and become a game warden. In 1981, Summers started working for FWC.
His beat was a wide swath of South Florida, a wild area that he often worked alone. Any backup would be hours away.
He was one of five officers who patrolled all of Collier County, two-thirds of Monroe County and a third of Miami-Dade County. The area included a large portion of the Everglades.
"It was a one-man show," he said. "It was scary at first."
But he loved it, he said. He was able to cruise in his four-wheel drive vehicle and spend all day in the outdoors. He protected wildlife and enforced hunting, fishing and trapping laws.
"I wouldn't trade it for the world," he said.
Karen Parker, an FWC public information officer, has known Summers for 10 years. When she met him, he was a patrol officer. Three years later, they started working together when Summers became a recruiter.
Parker said Summers' transition to a recruiter was a little hard on him because he's indoors a lot more.
"You name it, he's done it," she said.
He said when he's recruiting he tells students they have to be in love with law enforcement and wildlife to enjoy their time at FWC.
A blue rectangular bar with a silver-star pin is positioned on his tan uniform shirt, just above the right pocket. The blue service bar is given to officer in five-year increments, but the silver star is given after 30 years of service.
"I'm really proud of the service (bar)," he said.
He said he and his wife are going to spend their retirement hunting, fishing and camping. They'll visit their grandkids and campsites in northern Alabama more often. "I'm going to see what play time's like," he said.