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Omaha Magazine

Coyotes, Badgers, Cobras, Cows: Ernie Stary Has Saved Them All

Aug 27, 2021 04:12PM ● By Kamrin Baker
Ernie stary with his three dogs on his lap

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

An adult male coyote was found hanging on a privacy fence, its legs caught in the slats of the gate, in March 2017. The wild animal was hurt badly, and had it not been for the efforts of rescuers, including Ernie Stary, the animal likely would not have survived.

“The sheriff and I broke the middle fence board,” Stary said. “Of course, we asked the home owner if we could, and he said yes. After the middle board was broke the coyote was free and collapsed to the ground from exhaustion. I put the coyote on a flexible carrier stretcher and walked [it] to the work van with help from the sheriff’s deputy. I transported Coyote to the shelter immediately, and Laura from Wildlife Rescue came to pick up the animal for rehab. The coyote was nursed back to health after a month or so, and released back to the wild. He had torn tendons in both legs that had to heal.”

Stary served the Nebraska Humane Society as an animal control officer for 37 years before retiring this year. A Facebook post published on May 28, 2021, estimated that he had touched the lives of at least 27,000 animals. 

To him, it was nothing more than second nature.

“It was my second home,” Stary said. “I was really tied into that job. Being out in the field on my own, just saving animals, kept me sticking with it for so long. It wasn’t about production or efficiency but how rewarding things went out in the field.”

Stary began his journey with animal care working in pest control with Terminix in 1984, but before that year was up, he had connected with some folks who worked for the NHS animal control department and got a job there. He studied with an officer for 60 days on probation and was then turned loose with his own van and catcher’s pole. 

“During my probation period, I really got to liking it,” he said. “I was happy to be rescuing animals instead of preventing them.”

Stary is a quiet and reserved man who spent his time at the NHS calmly connecting with animals of all kinds. Within his first two years as an animal control officer, Stary encountered vicious dogs and was attacked twice. While investigating a complaint, a trio of dogs broke through a makeshift kennel and chased him through a few neighboring backyards, biting him in the underarm. This shook him, but he persevered in his job. Stary later helped break up a pitbull ring that spanned across Texas, Missouri, and Kansas. 

Another time, an owner was more aggressive than the dogs—slashing a knife through Stary’s tire when he impounded the owner’s pets. 

These early experiences didn’t keep him away. Stary took additional classes and trainings, volunteering for the ASPCA and buying his own small library to stay informed on all the animals he may encounter. He often volunteered for overnight emergency hours, handling some of the most challenging cases in the early hours of the morning. Stary was pleased to help rescue wildlife in these moments, turning them over to rehabilitation and rescue organizations.

He encountered an angry badger digging a den under the then-Aksarben racetrack. It was a batty job. Stary often stayed out all night taking bats out of houses, and then working a double shift into his standard morning call. 

“I once got a big horned owl under Highway 75 who got a wing stuck in a barbed wire fence,” Stary said. “Once it recovered, the wildlife rehab center actually asked me if I wanted to meet them there to turn it loose again.”

Stary once fished a 6-foot-long alligator out of a plastic pond in someone’s basement—they were keeping it as a pet but eventually realized it was not legal and turned it over to NHS.

Another time, he and his supervisor at the time, Kelli Brown, chased a pig and a goat in Gretna for over 45 minutes to no avail. In frustration, Brown yelled out towards the goat—and that’s when they discovered the goat was, in fact, a fainting goat. Triggered by her scream, it passed out in the middle of the road. 

Stary served on numerous hoarding calls, including one in which he rescued 100 cats from one home. He tipped overturned cows upright, busted cockfights, and herded haywire horses on the highway. 

He once picked up a cobra in Bellevue from what he called a “military man” who had gotten bitten by, and an infection from, the snake. The military forced the man to surrender this unique pet to NHS.

“I just put him in a little Tupperware with a lid on it, and he sat on my dash in the van and was moving back and forth like a bobble head,” Stary recalled, chuckling. “We traveled back to the shelter together and I watched it dance on every bump I hit.” The cobra was subsequently turned over to the zoo.

Steve Glandt, vice president of field operations at NHS, worked with Stary for a short time but was inspired by his true passion for this work. 

“For Ernie to endure 37 years of animals in distress really speaks to his passion for saving them,” Glandt says. “He’s just such a great guy. The dedication he had to the animals really set him apart.” 

Brown, who now works for the city of Fremont, also speaks highly of him.

“Ernie is very smart and he took the time to research everything,” she said. “He wouldn’t wait for things to be assigned to him. He was so dedicated, and motivated, and was really able to steer people out of burnout.” 

Visit nehumanesociety.org for more information.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann