It is said state conservation officers undertake such a wide variety of tasks on the job the average person could not easily list them.
Whether it is protecting natural resources, arresting game regulation violators or patrolling by truck or boat, Department of Natural Resources law enforcement personnel must be ready for anything when they begin their shifts.
Still, not all of them are prepared for one task — poisonous snake handler. Robert “Rob” Klakamp is.
It was announced this week that Klakamp, 46, of Freetown, was chosen the District 8 Conservation Officer of the Year for 2021, a territory that includes Jackson County.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” Klakamp said of his award. “I’m very proud.”
There are 10 Indiana DNR districts, and the 10 winners are automatically nominated for the Pitzer Award, given to the state’s conservation officer of the year.
Along with Jackson County, District 8 covers Clark, Crawford, Floyd, Harrison, Lawrence, Orange, Perry, Scott and Washington counties. Klakamp previously won a District 6 award earlier in his career.
While conservation officers in general have a passion for the outdoors and in most cases have a lifelong passion for hunting, fishing and the like, Klakamp is an unusual case in the ranks. He did not become a conservation officer until he was about 40 years old.
He did not pursue the role until he was older than others starting out, but from the moment he was accepted and put on his uniform, he was glad he made the life choice.
“Oh, absolutely,” Klakamp said. “I truly love what I do.”
District winners are selected by a vote of their peers, so Klakamp said that also makes the honor even more special. There was no single defining moment or specific case performance noted in Klakamp’s selection, though the DNR cited Klakamp’s work as an airboat operator, field training officer and venomous reptile handling skills as bonus activities beyond his regular duties as a field officer.
Conservation officers with that snake handling specialty on their résumés do not participate in carnivals but come to the rescue. They are sprinkled around the state and are on call when a dangerous snake becomes an issue. Klakamp said he has refresher training with cobras, rattlesnakes and copperheads twice a year.
That may not be the role Klakamp envisioned as an officer originally, but moving poisonous snakes is something he is trained to do.
“We do get some calls,” Klakamp said. “They’re in the yard, mainly. I’m that go-to guy. There are a select few of us in select counties.”
The average citizen recoils at the sight of a potentially dangerous snake, but Klakamp said he is OK with them as long as he is not surprised. He said as a youth, he caught garden snakes and water snakes at a local creek.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to that, even as a kid. I can’t say I’m not afraid of them. I’m not going to have one as a pet. Some people would call me crazy.”
These are, after all, venomous snakes, and their fan clubs are small.
“That’s why we get called,” Klakamp said. “Because people don’t like them. It’s just another way I can help the community.”
Helping out is one outlook attributed to Klakamp, said DNR law enforcement spokesman Jim Schreck.
“Rob is always very, very dependable,” Schreck said. “He’s one of those guys always with a positive attitude.”
While expressing happiness over being so honored as his district’s conservation officer of the year, Klakamp said he did not expect to be singled out and wasn’t even sure he should have been.
“I was in shock,” said Klakamp, who said he learned of the designation at a meeting with other officers. “I didn’t think I deserved it. I made some good cases. I made contacts in the community.”
Winning the award also sends a good message to the people he serves, Klakamp said.
“I think it tells the public I’m out here working for them,” he said. “It tells the community I’m working for them.”
The Pitzer Award is a step above. The statewide recognition is an award named for James D. Pitzer, a conservation officer who was shot to death Jan. 2, 1961, during an investigation of illegal hunting in Jay County.
The 2021 winner of that award will be announced in the spring, likely April or May.
“That’s a pretty prestigious award in my book,” Klakamp said.