SALT LAKE CITY — Decades before highly trained K-9s arrived on the scene, the Salt Lake City Police Department boasted a different kind of police dog.
Bunjo was a stray that “just showed up one day” in 1908, according to Judy Dencker, a retired captain and co-founder of the Salt Lake City Police and Fire Museum.
Soon, though, the mutt became a mascot whose presence was felt at the department for decades — even long after his death, thanks to the work of a taxidermist.
Nobody knows how the dog came by the name Bunjo, but officers quickly grew fond of him upon his arrival.
“He was kind of a mangy-looking old cur,” Dencker said. “The guys took pity on him. They … just kind of adopted him.”
Bunjo had “absolutely no skill” whatsoever, she said, but he was loyal to police.
“He was very fond of them. He would follow them around on their rounds,” Dencker explained. “(One captain) credited Bunjo with doing a pretty good job of policing the area around police buildings and getting rid of all of the stray cats.”
Within a few short years, Bunjo was essentially a police mascot, appearing in official police department photos in 1913 and 1915.
He wasn’t without fault. One story of Bunjo that survived from 1914 surrounds the dog being scolded for nabbing a 5-pound roast from provisions intended for the jail.
Still, Bunjo was by all accounts beloved when he died in 1918.
“The stories are varied — died of old age or he was struck by an automobile,” Dencker said. “Bunjo left us and went across ‘Rainbow Bridge,’ but his mortal remains made a stop at a taxidermist.”
Dencker said officers paid to have Bunjo stuffed.
“For a long time after that, rumors were that he either sat in the chief’s office or that he sat by the door of the squad room where the guys would pat him on the head as they were going out on their beats, you know, for good luck, stuff like that,” she said.
A picture taken sometime between 1945 and 1962 is believed to show a stuffed Bunjo with a past police chief’s daughter.
Dencker said Bunjo remained a fixture at the department from 1918 to 1960, when he was moved to the evidence room during a move to a new police station.
According to Dencker, Bunjo was eventually taken home by a retiring sergeant, A.H. Rogers, to perch on a piano bench.
A newspaper reporter encountered Rogers with Bunjo on their way in to a Sears store in 1967 to get the stuffed dog a new harness, Dencker said.
“Here we are, 1967, and somebody is still looking out for Bunjo,” she said.
Rogers died in 1971.
Dencker said Rogers’ daughter later told her she believed Bunjo was discarded when the estate was settled.
“Bunjo is probably long gone in the landfill, sadly,” Dencker said.
The stuffed dog has never been seen since.
Police would be interested in getting Bunjo back if he is, in fact, out there somewhere.
“Wouldn’t it be a kick to have him in a case, sitting in the lobby?” Dencker said.
She said Bunjo’s legacy lies in how beloved he was.
“Even a mixed-breed mutt can be a man’s friend,” Dencker said.
While Bunjo was nowhere near the definition of a modern police dog — which first came on the scene at the Salt Lake City Police Department in 1954 — those highly trained K-9s share Bunjo’s best traits, including the bond the dogs share with their handlers.
“It’s a very good bond,” Salt Lake police officer Nick Pearce said of his K-9, Otto. “I mean, he’s watching out for me, I’m watching out for him on the street.”
Like Bunjo to the officers of his day, Otto has become part of Pearce’s family.
“He’s a pain in the butt, but I wouldn’t trade him for anything," he said. "(It's the) best assignment in the department, and I think police dogs have a place in policing for eternity.”