Honoring Zak

CELINA — Dog lovers and their furry friends gathered at the shelterhouse at the Celina Rotary Dog Park Monday evening to remember one of their own — a fallen canine sheriff’s officer.

A group of area residents organized a celebration remembrance ceremony for Zak, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office K-9 who died last week after being left in the canine officer’s car.

“As you know, tonight we’re here to honor Zak,” Organizer Maria Suhr said as she addressed the crowd. “Zak died on Wednesday. He was our canine for Mercer County. Not only was he a community friend, but he was an officer as well.”

Suhr read “A Dog’s Prayer” by an unknown author.

Following the prayer, Suhr read a statement from Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey, which read as follows:

“The Mercer County Sheriff’s Office would like to thank the organizers for planning the remembrance of K-9 Zak. I regret that the attendance of members of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office would be a distraction under the circumstances of Zak’s untimely death. The sheriff’s office will hold a private remembrance for sheriff’s office employees only. We hope you will understand and respect that decision. Zak was a courageous member of our sheriff’s office team. His untimely and tragic death has caused pain and grieving by every member of the community and has been extremely difficult on employees of the sheriff’s office, his handler and the handler’s family.

I would ask that as you remember Zak tonight and celebrate his life, that you would remember the members of the sheriff’s office, the handler and his family and keep us all in your prayers because it has been a very emotional and difficult week for the entire community, including the sheriff’s office. Thank you for your forgiveness of our human errors and know that each member of our sheriff’s office tries every day to keep you safe, to serve you and to make you, our citizens, proud of us.

Sometimes in our human condition we fall short. For that, we apologize. Thank you and may God continue to bless this community and aid us in healing.”

Next, fellow organizer, Tammy Hileman, noted how Zak came to be a part of the Mercer County community.

“Zak joined the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office in the fall of 2010,” Hileman said. “He was roughly a year old when they got him.”

She noted Zak was purchased through donations by the Celina Moose Lodge and the Celina Fraternal Order of Eagles, and Zak attended training classes to be certified for police patrol work.

“He was certified in handler protection and also could utilize his keen sense of smell to assist deputy sheriffs and other police officers in the ongoing battle against drugs in our community,” Hileman said. “Zak was a gentle dog, good with kids and adults alike.”

In addition to attending various club meetings around Mercer County, Zak also spent time in schools.

“He spent time in the office with deputies always wanting to play keep away with his chew toy,” Hileman said. “But make no mistake, when duty called the games were over and Zak went to work. He tracked criminals who fled the scene of the crime, he found illegal drugs that officers would not have found alone and anyone thinking of assaulting an officer would have to go through Zak. He knew a job and he knew it well. He was a valuable asset to our community. May you rest in peace, Zak, you will be sorely missed and always remembered.”

Hileman then read another poem, also called “A Dog’s Prayer.” Her prayer was written by Beth Norman Harris.

“We’ve got a bunch of dog lovers here,” Suhr said after Hileman finished reading her prayer. “How many of you had ever met Zak out in the community? Quite a few of us. I don’t want Zak to be forgotten, and what we tend to do is we’re here today and we’re gone tomorrow with this.”

To remember Zak, Suhr noted they would like if the community contributed by donating to other dogs in need.

“What we’d like everybody to do, if you’d like, instead of memorials and contributions and plaques and stuff like that, we’d like to work on feeding our needy animals.”

She said that there are dogs who get left behind when their owners can’t feed them.

“I think that sometimes when we see animals go to the pound or get turned into a rescue, it might be because their owners can’t feed them,” she said. “And so if you can think about how that would feel as an owner to not be able to feed your pets and have to relinquish them, I can’t imagine that feeling.”

So, the group is hoping to remember Zak by setting up a donation area to help other dogs and pets.

“In Zak’s honor, we’re going to have Zak’s corner at the food pantry,” Suhr said. “We’d like, if you would to spread the word to your family and friends, if you could donate pet food, cat litter, pet toys, blankets, anything that you think a pet might need. Because we would hate to see somebody lose their family because they couldn’t afford to feed them.”

She noted the two rescues in Mercer County — Open Arms and the Animal Protection League of Mercer County.

“We need foster families,” Suhr stressed. “We need people to be advocates for the animals. If you feel like you couldn’t be a foster because, ‘Oh I can’t take a dog and then have to give it away,’ imagine that dog being put to death because someone couldn’t take it until we found a proper home. And I believe that God finds the proper home for every dog and finds the proper dog for the proper person.”

She noted that was the one thing the community could work on — helping its animals.

“In Mercer County, we’ve done pretty good about some things but if we can get the community more involved with rescue and fostering, feeding our needy animals, I think that Zak would be proud,” she said.

Also in attendance on Monday was Nik, the retired city of St. Marys’ retired police dog, who is Zak’s cousin.

After Nik’s handler spoke, organizer Lori Taylor finished the evening with a poem.

“Words of healing are good to hear right now,” Suhr said before introducing Taylor. “Reach out to your neighbor. If you see a dog that’s in trouble or something doesn’t seem right with him, talk to the owner. These dogs, even though somebody owns them, it’s up to us, all of us, to protect them.”

Taylor read her poem and then thanked everyone in attendance for coming and encouraged those dogs to go play in the dog park and said she hoped the ceremony aided in the healing process for Zak.

“Through the community — we’re dog people,” Suhr told The Evening Leader following the vigil of how they knew Zak. “We’re dog lovers, we’re dog advocates. Any dog that dies takes a piece of you, especially when you have a dog yourself.”