Robert Sterling and his dog, Rufus.
When Robert Sterling was named the 2014 Vermont State Game Warden of the Year, it took some time for the honor to soak in.
But then, a woman he hadn’t heard from in many years called and left a congratulatory message on his answering machine.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Sterling said. “I was amazed at the number of calls and messages — the feedback from the people in my district.”
The Fair Haven man has spent his entire 18-year career as a Department of Fish and Wildlife warden patrolling the highways and back roads of Fair Haven, West Haven, Castleton, Benson, Sudbury and Orwell.
Sterling’s supervisor, Lt. George Scribner, praised his investigative abilities and leadership.
“He is a true team player and is always willing to drop everything to assist another warden or another agency,” Scribner said.
Sterling is the coordinator for Fish and Wildlife’s K-9 training program, and his 8-year-old dog, Rufus, has helped with cases resulting in between $12,000 and $14,000 in fines and restitution.
Together, Sterling and Rufus have received three lifesaving awards from the department and one from the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council’s Canine Committee.
That reward came when the pair found a 12-year-old autistic boy.
Sterling said the boy had gone missing at 10 a.m. and by the time they arrived it was 3:30 p.m.
Sterling put the boy’s pillowcase on the ground and Rufus got the scent and took off.
Some 2½ hours and nearly 4 miles later, Rufus found the boy about 6 p.m. He was unharmed but wet and cold, wearing only underwear, a light windbreaker and Crocs.
The temperature that April night got down to 25 degrees.
Another reward came while trying to prevent a man from committing suicide by jumping from an overpass.
The man was hanging from the overpass and planned to drop in front of a tractor-trailer.
But Sterling grabbed the man and held him for a while. At one point, the man kicked and nearly pulled the smaller Sterling over the railing.
The man ended up falling, but survived with broken bones.
Sterling then blocked the interstate with his patrol truck and provided aid until the medics arrived.
“When he hit, I can still, to this day, hear that sound,” Sterling said. “It was a rough night.”
Sterling said many people believe wardens are just deer or fish cops.
“Game wardens get into a lot of stuff that aren’t about fish and wildlife,” Sterling said. “But I’ve made a lot of deer cases too.”
Even before the congratulatory messages started flowing in, Sterling was honored to have been chosen by his fellow department employees.
“It was decided by the other wardens I work with,” Sterling said. “It wasn’t a political decision. That means something.”
Sterling praised the other three wardens in the four-warden field from which he was chosen.
“The other three guys are all very deserving of this award,” Sterling said. “It’s a big honor.”
He credits much of his success to approaching the job with the right mind-set.
“I believe strong in ethics and accountability and morality,” he said. “I’ve always thought, is this the right thing to do?”
As a field training officer who helps train new wardens, he said he often tells them the key to success is to get to know people in the district.
“To be a good game warden you have to communicate with the people in the area,” Sterling said. “We live within our district. They know us.”
That can be good and bad.
Sterling said threats of retribution come with the territory, and for a while he had to paint his fence at least every year.
“I’ve been threatened several times right at our front door step,” Sterling said.
But he puts up with the hardships and the danger for one reason.
“I like what I do,” he said.
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