Friday’s rescue of a dog trapped in the Los Angeles River has sparked furious debate. The real-life drama, in which a team of firefighters and swift-rescue personnel successfully recovered the German shepherd, was broadcast live on local television. The dog, nicknamed Vernon, is safe, sound, rabies-free, and residing at a Los Angeles county animal shelter, which reports a “mile-long list” of interested adopters. That sounds like a happy ending. But because the life saved was that of “just a dog,” and because the poor beast out of sheer panic bit the hand of his rescuer, firefighter Joe St. Georges, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) is now under fire — its critics outraged at the expenditure of resources and assets on a mere mutt (and an ungrateful one, at that).
But the LAFD absolutely did the right thing. Regardless of your feelings about animals — whether or not you believe in the special bond the exists between people and pets; whether you love animals or loathe them, or prefer cats to dogs — the only thing to do is to applaud the LAFD’s action and hope that other disaster response agencies won’t ever hesitate to help animals in need.
“The dog was trying to get out of the channel, and that was not going to happen,” explained St. Georges, who is 50-years-old and a 25-year firefighting veteran. What’s more, the LAFD feared — rightly — that because the situation was being broadcast live, animal lovers might rush in and display amateur heroics, resulting in serious human injury and possibly death.
As a firefighter with the Denver Fire Department, Heather Green fought fires for 9 years (she now works in dispatch). She also owns three dogs and is associate publisher of The American Dog Magazine. She writes:
It is standard practice in the fire service to respond to water/ice rescues involving dogs to prevent citizens from attempting a rescue; however, firefighter Joe St. Georges went beyond the call of duty to ensure this dog’s safety. Regardless of species, any decent human being does not want to witness the suffering of another living soul. The LAFD should be commended for this heroic rescue. As a firefighter and animal lover, I have a new hero of my own: Firefighter Joe St. Georges.
MuttShack Animal Rescue Foundation, the non-profit disaster-response organization, just nominated St. Georges for its Knights of Katrina Award — for “tireless dedication to the protection and well-being of animals, and for service beyond the call of duty.” Others who have received this award include Senator Clo Fontenot and Dr. Renee Poirrier of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team. This week, MuttShack officially entered into partnership with New York City — which means that in the event of a disaster, MuttShack will assist in evacuating the city’s animal shelters, bringing thousands of pets to safety.
In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, MuttShack established the only free, full-service triage facility for animals in the city of New Orleans. They saved many animal lives and reunited many people with their pets. But many more human lives could have been saved had authorities not insisted that people leave their beloved pets behind. For so many pet people, abandoning animal family members was simply not an option, so they made the ultimate sacrifice by choosing not to evacuate the disaster area. “We literally rescued kittens from behind dead bodies,” recalls MuttShack founder Amanda St. John. “One man had refused to evacuate because his dog was pregnant, so he hid with the dog.” (Thankfully, the man and his dog both survived.)