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.)
In the business of rescue and disaster response, every life matters. An animal stops being “just an animal” and becomes another life to save. Besides, are we not all animals — canine, feline, or human? If firefighters were to stop rescuing animals, never mind that children everywhere would be brokenhearted — they wouldn’t want to grow up to be firefighters any more. And then who would be there to rescue us in the future?
Firefighters carry a responsibility even heavier than their equipment and bunking gear. The responsibility is not just to the people they pull out of harm’s way, but to a public that still believes they’re the last heroes we’ve got. Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, firefighters have been revered as gods; but it’s not for them to play God, deciding which lives are worth saving. In an emergency situation, every life deserves compassion and a chance to be saved. But never mind the morals — when disaster strikes, it’s just smart to value life. What if, in trying to decide which life is more worthy of saving, one were to make the wrong choice? Rescue is right-to-life; it cannot be any other way.
Disasters small and large affect animals too, and they certainly deserve rescue. Right now, in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, awareness is building that people are not the only ones suffering. The animals — pets, stray dogs, wildlife, zoo animals, and livestock — all desperately need the world’s help and compassion too. And so global animal organizations are mobilizing to assist the animals of Haiti. The Animal Relief Coalition for Haiti (ARCH) is headed by two leaders in the animal protection movement: the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which is mounting an emergency animal relief mission, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which has a team on the ground in Haiti to assess the situation. Other groups that have joined the coalition include the American Humane Association, Best Friends, and the Humane Society International.
Meanwhile, the Dominican agency Sociedad Dominicana para la Prevención de Crueldad a los Animales (SODOPRECA) has coordinated a team to travel to Haiti to help the animal survivors, with the support of the Dominican Red Cross and Civil Defense. SODOPRECA’s supporters in this country have organized various fundraisers, including a vegan bake sale.
Anyone who has ever rescued an animal, whether a tiny wild bird or a downed deer, can relate to the helplessness of creatures in disaster areas. Anyone who can’t relate is probably also incapable of feeling sympathy for the suffering of people. Just as rescue is right-to-life, compassion is — or ought to be — equal-opportunity and non-species-specific.
I remember one night, many years ago, when my husband and I spotted a Shetland sheepdog running alongside a country highway. The dog was high-risk for getting hit by a car, so we took off on foot after him. It was dark out; neither John nor I were wearing reflective clothing or footwear. All three of us could have wound up roadkill that night. Thankfully, the dog was mostly white, so he was easier to spot than, say, a black dog would’ve been. The Sheltie ran up an embankment, then down, zigzagging frantically. On his way back up I collared him — but not before the poor, stressed-out creature sank his teeth into my hand, the same panicked response the LAFD’s Joe St. Georges got for his trouble.
I’m used to rescuing sweet, grateful pit bulls so I wasn’t prepared for this little dog’s impressive display of choppers, and I may have cursed the Sheltie at that moment, but I couldn’t rightly blame him. Self-defense is the only natural response for a small dog in such big trouble. My husband caught up to us, took over, and carried the little dog to safety; the next day the owner came by to pick the Sheltie up, whereupon my hand blew up — thoroughly infected by whatever bacteria was on the Sheltie’s teeth. I was lucky to get immediate treatment with a strong antibiotic, so my hand turned out OK — as doubtless Joe St. George’s hand will too. (Thanks to the dog’s bite, he lost a fingernail and fractured a thumb, but promises to be back in action soon.)
Would I attempt such a harebrained rescue again? Absolutely, without a second’s hesitation. But if firefighters were on the scene, I’d gladly step back and let the pros handle it.