Freeze, it’s the fuzz-y.
It seems Bainbridge Island Police Department K9 Officer Whitney has some new competition for the honor of cutest cop these days.
Cagney and Lacey, two 9-week-old guinea pigs, are making the rounds with their human handler, BIPD Officer Carla Sias, as part of a pioneering good-will outreach program geared toward fostering positive interactions between law enforcement and island children and the elderly.
Born and raised on Bainbridge, and acquired through an island breeder, Cagney and Lacey, each about the size of a plump potato, are admittedly not the expected animal ambassadors for a police department.
And that’s the point.
“I was trying to think of something different … that another police department hasn’t done, but is outreach and is positive,” Sias said. “What kind of sealed the deal for me, this just came to me, this idea, and then I started researching it, but when I was at Boys & Girls Club and I was playing air hockey … I stood up and the little boy standing next to me said, ‘Don’t stand up!’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because it’s scary.’
“So just the uniform [for] some kids, they’ve maybe had a negative experience or their parents have. That’s why the idea of the furry little guinea pigs. It’s not threatening, and then it’s just building that relationship.”
Sias and her furry friends have already visited Hazel Creek Montessori, Stephens House, and the preschool class at Captain Charles Wilkes Elementary School.
The littlest kids are introduced to the guinea pigs incrementally. First, they pet a “practice pig” before eventually being given the chance to get at the real thing. For her youngest audience, Sias said, it’s less about lessons and more about the experience.
“I can’t teach them,” she said. “It’s not about the education. It’s just that they recognize a police uniform, but it was more about the bonding and just having a positive relationship or interaction with the little ones and police.
“We talk about pigs, what they eat and all that, and … we show them how to pet the pig.”
Still, there is some learning going on, too.
“We actually have a curriculum at the preschool,” Sias said. “When I go, every two weeks we’ll weigh and measure them and teach them something new about the guinea pigs and maybe let them touch them a little longer and work up to letting them hold the guinea pigs.
“They have a little journal that they write in about what they learned about the guinea pigs.”
Having served as an purring, furry little icebreaker, the guinea pigs then become facilitators of what, for many, might be their first interaction with a police officer.
“With some kids, maybe they’re too young to understand what a police officer really does,” Sias said. “So it’s just kind of [about] recognizing the police uniform and knowing that police are here to help them. And so I’m finding these little girls are helping with the positive interaction and it eases any kind of hesitation [or] reservation if they maybe aren’t sure about police. And then you have a little furry friend … and part of it is the teaching that police have compassion; we take care of people.”
Even in preschool, Sias said, her audiences have some pretty firmly held beliefs on the subject of cops.
“I’ll ask kids, ‘What am I? Am I a firefighter? How do you recognize that I’m the police?’ And then [we] name something that police do. What’s our job? And, of course, it’s always to arrest bad guys. But [we] save lives, help people. So part of it is we help animals, too, so if they see we have compassion, we have animals, we help both people and animals, I think it kind of again just shows that it’s not just a uniform. That people really care, too.”
For the young-at-heart, too, the animal ambassadors have been welcome visitors. Sias has taken Cagney and Lacey assisted living facilities Madrona House and Madison Avenue House, and has hopes to visit more senior housing in the future.
“I want to go there, too … because a lot of those folks I think probably had animals and now they can’t have them,” she explained. “So just to go and have a connection and they can ask questions, but they just get to sit there and hold the guineas, and they absolutely love it.”
Sias said the guinea pigs are preferable to a dog in that they are more portable and, as they are not responsible for any actual police work, they won’t be called away suddenly to assist officers in the field.
“I think some kids have maybe had bad experiences with a dog,” she said. “And these go with me, so I can schedule these and I know I’m going to show up with them. And I almost think they have more personality.”
Young as they are, Cagney and Lacey seem to enjoy being petted and meeting new people, Sias said, and apples are their favorite treat.
“I don’t know if that’s every guinea pig, but it is these two’s,” she said. “They’re just hilarious and you can hear the little noises that they make.
“They’re very curious and they just kind of sit, they’re pretty well-behaved. I guess that’s why people get them as pets.”
Public interest has so far been obvious and the immediate reactions, from students, teachers and older audiences, have been supportive, according to Sias.
“I think that’s kind of the hope, that it is something different and so far public support has been tremendous,” she said. “Everybody’s been welcoming and supportive. They just kind of put a smile on your face, right? I mean, how can you not?”
Classrooms, clubs or community groups hoping to meet Cagney and Lacey should contact Sias via firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.