To woodchucks, golf courses like the one at Frear Park in upstate New York are paradise — the small mammals are drawn to open fields, where the animals can feast on grasses, crops and the occasional insect.
To one woodchuck, the Frear Park paradise turned into a lethal nightmare on a Friday afternoon in late July. A pair of police officers playing in a golf tournament spied a wandering woodchuck. For reasons yet unknown — a local columnist speculated that the large amounts of alcohol common at such tournaments may have played a role, though there is no confirmation the officers were drinking — they allegedly gave chase in a golf cart. Other parkgoers say the men crushed the animal beneath their tires.
The incident was widely condemned by local officials and nationally on social media. The city of Troy, where the park is located, has assigned two detectives to an ongoing investigation.
The case of “woodchuck homicide,” as the Albany Times-Union put it, occurred while the Rensselaer Police Department union was holding its annual golf tournament. Officer Tyler Sammon was driving the cart with a fellow officer, Matt Spath, riding shotgun, Rensselaer Police Chief Rick Fusco told ABC’s News 10. Both men are on administrative leave with pay until the investigation concludes and could not be located for comment.
“There is zero tolerance for this behavior,” Troy City Council President Carmella Mantello said in a the statement to the Troy Record. “The City Council, Mayor, Police Chief [John] Tedesco, and detectives are investigating this serious animal abuse incident and inappropriate actions.”
Killing woodchucks is not illegal in New York. The animals are one of the few species unprotected by state law, which means they can be killed during any season in any number. As noted by the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, a project spearheaded by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, woodchucks cause damage to farms and gardens. Their long burrows can also be hazardous to tractor axles.
But a ban put in place by the city of Troy outlaws killing animals, nuisance or not, in the park. Critics have also drawn a line between woodchuck hunting and running down an animal with a golf cart.
“There is no room for a police officer to continue to be a police officer if in fact he did this, if he intentionally killed an animal … but we need witnesses to come forward,” said Fusco to WNYT as news of the groundhog slaying broke.
Some witnesses took to Facebook to express their outrage. William Meissner described the scene in a post on Friday: “While playing Frear Park golf course today, I witnessed two people in a golf cart chase down a woodchuck until it couldn’t run anymore and then they ran over it with their golf cart. The woodchuck managed to crawl about ten feet and rolled around a little before it died. I later learned that the two people were police officers from the City of Rensselaer, playing in a golf tournament.”
There was also a baby woodchuck by the 12th hole, Meissner said.
Other golfers described the men as taunting the animal and chasing it to the point of exhaustion. The officers allegedly also tore a path of destruction across the course in their pursuit of the rodent. “Additionally, there are witness reports these same individuals ran over tee boxes with their carts and drove through the ropes on golf holes,” Mantello said. The Rensselaer police union has been banned from holding events in Frear Park, she told WNYT.
“If in fact this alleged situation happened, I will be recommending they be terminated,” said Fusco, who called the experience humiliating, to the Times-Union. “There is no room in any police agency for a person like this to be carrying a badge and a gun.”