How do you leave your first love? Well, when you’re talking about a career, that’s a tough question to answer. Especially if you’ve been married to your job for 28 years, like Mike Keeney has.

And his answer? You never quite do.

He’s called Bessie Heights marsh home and coons, rabbits, bobcats, coyotes and baby possum family. He also knows some alligators by name.

Many of you might know this nearly 7-foot-tall game warden, who covers 450 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. If you’ve ever been fishing or hunting or gotten a ticket in Orange County, chances are you’ve met Big Mike.

He’s kept his bags packed, ready for the next adventure, which usually involved helping other people.

“We had a whole lot of land to cover,” he said. “We get called from all over Texas within 10 miles offshore.”

Cattle and pork rancher and wildlife rehabilitator Julie Norwood Walker will never forget the first time she saw Big Mike, who is like an adoptive father to her.

He dropped in to the old Cattleman’s Feed Co. (now Peveto’s), a store her parents used to own, and she could have sworn he was going to be her guardian angel. And he has been, he and his wife Halye, for most of her family’s life.

“I was 18. I don’t know how to explain it. I knew what he was there for. He knew that he was there to protect me. (Somehow) He wasn’t a stranger to me and I wasn’t a stranger to him,” she recalls.

Her story is like that of so many others who have encountered Big Mike on one side of the law or the other. As a young boy, he wasn’t sure what to call his chosen field, but when he stepped into it 28 years ago, he felt God fashioned it just for him.

His first days on the job consisted of a search and rescue in which authorities were able to locate the body. Most game wardens would tell you this is the least favorite function of the job.

“It brings peace to the family,” he said. And when you’ve put them at ease, it makes the job worth it. He added, over the years, fire agencies have taken on a greater role in the area of search and rescue, providing divers, etc., even though multiple agencies often collaborate on these cases.

Though the blaring sounds of outboard motors and dryers have taken away some of his hearing over the years, there’s still one cry he hears well above the rest. That of a young person caught doing wrong, who needs to be put back on the right track.

Many who know Big Mike well will tell you that’s one of his greatest strengths: educating young people. He calls it seed planting.

“He is a natural teacher,” Norwood Walker said. “He has a lot of patience, whether it’s with children or animals. He’s a very caring and loving person.

He’s going to give you a chance to do right. The next time, well that’s going to tick him off. He does not tolerate drinking and that kind of stuff. You need to go to jail right away (for that stuff).”

He sticks to the notion that branding is for horses, not for kids.

“A lot of people say they (troubled kids) are branded an outlaw. You’ve got to do these people right and there are those who are going to refuse. Sometimes you have to go to jail or the judge.

“I tell them: ‘The only thing that will keep you from being the best is yourself. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you cannot achieve anything. If you fail one time, it doesn’t mean you stop. Keep plugging away. You’ll always be happier’.”

This is where one of his favorite mottoes kicks in. Treat others the way you want to be treated.

“I’ve seen people we use to chase all the time and they’ve turned around,” Keeney said. “It’s nice to see someone make something of themselves. It’s sort of like planting a seed and watering it every chance you get. Sometimes they need a little prodding’ every now and then.”

Over the years he’s answered his fair share of petty calls. He’s helped owls out of chimneys, bats out of homes and king snakes and alligators across the street. He’s lost count of how many gators he’s had to trap. And used to, there was no trailer hitch. They’d have to bind the lively critter and place it in the back seat.
“I actually had a 6 foot 10 [gator] try to take my thumb – but I wouldn’t let him have it,” Keeney said.

Some remedies are easier than others are. If you’ve got a bat trapped in your house: “Open your door and turn the lights out!” Keeney said. “It’s going to go.”

When hurricanes Rita and Ike swept through the land, he did his fair share of recutting and clearing paths to homes along Bessie Heights marsh, delivering Meals Ready to Eat to those stranded and sighting individuals for vandalism.

The snapshot view of a game warden’s job description might look something like this: Emphasize care of the environment and animals; located oil, trash and illegal spills; ensuring proper hunting and boating identification, gear and observance of the law; missing persons and search and rescue; and general traffic safety. Game wardens also work on a number of various stings having to do with illegal deer dogs – dogs that are trained to kill deer – and all the regulations that go into catching fish, knowing which ones can be kept, etc.
“I really had the Catch 22 of everything,” Keeney said. “You never got stuck in one thing.”

In 28 years as a game warden, thankfully he’s never had to use his skills in delivering a baby or propelling from a tall building. But a game warden is trained for that too.

Makes you wonder what a game warden is not trained for. Big Mike might say – retirement.

And so while his wife Hayle still teaches English at Memorial High School in Port Arthur and his son Michael continues his music and theater studies at Sam Houston, his next big adventure may involve boating and hunting education.

In the meantime, he may enjoy a few of his other hobbies: singing and playing the guitar, scuba diving and, of course, fishing.