PHILADELPHIA — The sound of rifle fire cracked the air on a recent blustery morning at a Poconos shooting range. When the game warden rolled in, the shooters turned their heads to watch his dark SUV roll slowly across the snow.
Everyone notices when the warden shows up, particularly when it’s Warden Praveed “Abe” Abraham.
“Cease fire,” Abraham said to the group of shooters as he approached them on foot.
Abraham, 32, is the first full-time warden of colour in the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s 115-year history. His path to conservation law enforcement was an unlikely one — he once planned to become a doctor — and it began in the unlikeliest place: Yonkers, N.Y. Abraham, of Indian and West Indian descent — his father was born in India, his mother in Guyana — grew up there with his family. Wildlife in Yonkers consisted of pigeons and squirrels.
“Once, I saw a turkey there when I was a kid,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
Abraham attended boarding school as a teen and later studied psychology at Mercy College in New York. He moved to rural Pennsylvania for a change.
“My wife got sick and we realized we didn’t like where we were living and decided life is too short,” he said.
Abraham worked on an organic farm in Hamburg, Berks County, tending to chickens and goats and later took a job at a warehouse, where he befriended an avid outdoorsman. That coworker, Abraham said, pushed him to apply for a position at the Game Commission, which he got in 2019.
Bill Williams, the education supervisor at the Game Commission’s Northeast Region Office in Luzerne County, said the job has, historically, drawn white males from rural areas. But Abraham has been a fast learner and model officer, he said.
“A game warden from Yonkers is certainly unique,” Williams said. “He’s very self-motivated. Most game wardens, though not all, come from a hunting background. He kind of acquired that interest later in life.”
According to the Game Commission, there are 187 game wardens in the state.
Steve Beltran, secretary-treasurer of the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association and an officer in the Midwest, said he’s seen more women get involved in conservation law enforcement but there are still not as many people of colour.
Beltran, who is Hispanic, said the job can be a lonely one for any officer. He said he once took part in an exchange program and worked in British Columbia.
“When we got out into the vast remoteness, the liabilities increase,” he said. “The remote aspect of the job is demanding.”
Abraham said his race is rarely a factor when he interacts with the public. He works in Monroe County, 115 miles north of Philadelphia. The county is rural, but it’s also more diverse than most rural Pennsylvania counties and bustling too, a tourist destination for many. The job there, he said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We have a lot of people coming in this area during the summer from New York and New Jersey and I have a lot of interaction with Hispanic populations along with Indian and West Indian folks,” he said.
Still, some people have made ethnic slurs about him, he said, both to his face and once in a letter to a judge. Others are simply curious, Abraham said, telling him that they’ve “never met a brown warden before.”
Once, a hunter Abraham was helping, told him his skin colour went well with his Army-green uniform.
“His buddy was like, ‘Why would you say that?’” Abraham said. “I don’t think he was trying to be rude, and that’s not stuff I typically hear.”
The public often thinks of wardens as officers whose sole purpose is to check on licenses and firearms and to write up tickets for violations. That’s a big part of the job, but Abraham said there’s always a chance to drop an outdoors lesson, too.
“So a flintlock is actually the same thing as a muzzle loader,” he told a man at the shooting range.
In Monroe County, Abraham said he deals with plenty of land-abuse situations, including littering and trespassing ATV riders, but with the county being a tourist destination, he also handles animal calls at ski resorts and vacation home rentals.
“We get a lot of people calling who’ve never seen a bear before,” he said.
Abraham also scratches his itch for science, helping trap turkeys, band ducks, or track black bears to collect data for other state agencies.
“Sometimes, I like to think I get paid to hike,” he said on a snowy trail.
Abraham said he recently had to climb a tree to retrieve a bear that had been tranquilized and gone to sleep in a tree. On one occasion, while investigating a poaching suspect who shot a deer, Abraham had to square off with a bear that wanted a meal. When he and the suspect approached the deer, the bear was rustling in the woods. Abraham ordered the man to help him drag the deer out, quickly. The suspect, Abraham said, was terrified.
“Sure enough, when we got back to the spot where we dragged the deer out, the bear had come and dragged it back, and we had to scare it off.”
Conservation law enforcement has its unique dangers. As a fully licensed officer who carries a service weapon, Abraham also assists on search warrants, domestic disputes, and tracking teams for other law enforcement agencies. Wildlife officers, particularly out west, often have to hike into remote locations on foot or horseback and are often approaching individuals who want to be left alone.
“We’re typically by ourselves about 98% of the time and most of the people we interact with are armed or have a knife,” Abraham said. “A lot of the times, the people we run into that aren’t following the law have other things going on, too.”
Pennsylvania, according to the Game Commission, has lost 10 wardens since the agency’s inception. Four of them died by “gunfire,” according to the Game Commission. One of the deaths occurred in 2010, when a Game Commission warden was killed near Gettysburg during a shootout with a poaching suspect.
Abraham is soon transferring west to Bradford County, one of the state’s more rural counties. Alaska, he said, would be a dream, as well.
“I would never say never,” he said of working there.
Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Associated Press