You’re strolling along a forest trail with your favorite trail companion, your big chocolate Lab. She’s 12, slowing down, but still loves getting outside, taking in the smells and sounds that excite her brain and bring a spring to her arthritic step. Walking a few feet ahead, she sets an easy pace, nose to the ground.
Suddenly, a clap of thunder startles you both. Spooked, she runs, terrified. You hear her crashing through shrubs and branches as you frantically call her to come … then there’s silence. Following her path as best you can, carefully parting the undergrowth to see where you’re stepping, you halt, nearly falling down a long steep bank covered in trees, shrubs and rock outcroppings. Far below, you see your dog’s brown coat and bright collar; she’s on her side near a stream at the bottom of the gully. Frantically shouting her name, you watch, terrified, as she lifts her head and looks at you with fear in her eyes.
Now what? Can you reach her without hurting yourself? And if you do, how will you manage to get her aging and probably injured 80-pound body back up to the trail by yourself?
If you’re lucky, you have your cell phone (and reception) and live in an area that has an animal rescue team, ready to respond to exactly this type of emergency. One such group is headquartered in Enumclaw, Wash., 40 miles south of Seattle.
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Washington State Animal Response Team (WASART) is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that mobilizes when companion animals and livestock are in a crisis situation—a dog slides down a ravine and can’t get back up, a horse gets stuck in a bog, or a wildfire threatens a community and their animals need emergency sheltering. WASART responds to emergencies and disasters throughout the state when called upon by an animal owner or law enforcement, often working in coordination with search-and-rescue teams. The group focuses on animal rescues, leaving the searching and human rescues to other responders.
WASART rescues a wide range of pets and domestic animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and other small companion mammals—as well as farm animals such as chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs, llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, cows and horses. They aren’t trained to rescue wildlife or exotics, such as snakes and birds.
The organization was founded by two women who volunteered with Northwest Horseback Search and Rescue. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast in 2005, Gretchen McCallum and Greta Cook watched, horrified, as people refused rescue because they couldn’t bring their pets; of those who declined to evacuate ahead of the storm, roughly one-third did so because of their unwillingness to leave their pets behind.
McCallum and Cook were determined that such a scenario would never happen in Washington, and created WASART in early 2007 with a few other volunteers, focusing on disaster sheltering and rescues of horses and livestock. Their first deployment involved a mare who had been down in a muddy pasture for two days.
Soon, they expanded to include a group of volunteers who had helped with the post-Katrina cleanup, including current WASART president Bill Daugaard, who brings his Katrina-rescued dog—whom he named for the hurricane—with him to the organization’s board meetings. With this infusion of talent and expertise, rescuing companion animals was added to the group’s mission, making good use of down time between disaster deployments.
According to Michaela Eaves, WASART’s Public Information Officer, most of their rescues are dogs and horses, in a nearly equal split. There are more canine rescues in the summer months, when dogs go along on hikes and other outdoor expeditions, and more horse rescues in the cold winter months, when older horses go down in stalls or fields.
WASART gets called to a rescue in one of two ways: 75 percent of the time, an owner calls 911, and the local sheriff or animal control officer asks WASART to help. The rest of the time, an owner calls WASART directly. (Occasionally a vet or someone who knows a WASART team member will call on behalf of an owner.) WASART doesn’t self-deploy. “It’s a matter of trust,” explains Eaves. “If we’re not asked to assist but show up anyway, we’ll never get called by those first responders again.”
Rescue, Simple and Complicated
Western Washington, where WASART most frequently works, is a place of steep hills and jagged mountains covered in dense forests, crisscrossed with rugged trails and rich in streams, lakes and waterfalls, all within easy driving distance of major urban areas. These temptations create the perfect storm for the most common scenarios WASART gets called to: urban dogs unfamiliar with this environment who have fallen over a cliff or slid down a ravine, whose pads are burned and/or cut from walking on hot boulder fields, or who are simply old or out of shape and unable to return to the trailhead under their own power. WASART teams are trained not only in handling various types of animals, but in the technical aspects of traversing difficult terrain, often utilizing ropes to rappel over cliffs and down steep embankments.
This year, during a June hot spell, WASART received a call to assist Summit to Sound Search and Rescue in packing out an injured dog on a trail near Mt. Baker, close to the Canadian border. Arriving at the trailhead at 9 pm, the team hiked five miles in the dark, arriving at the location around 1 am to discover that there were two dogs, Alaskan Malamutes Bow and Arrow, with their guardian. The dogs’ pads were burned and raw, and they couldn’t walk.
The WASART team put panty liners on the dogs’ feet for padding and blood absorption and covered them with surgical gloves (to prevent fur from sticking), then wrapped each injured foot in vet wrap. Now able to walk, Bow and Arrow, their guardian, and the rescue team slowly hiked the five miles out, taking time to rest and re-bandage. They arrived back at the trailhead at 5:40 am.
If dogs aren’t able to walk out on their own, the team will carry them out in a backpack (for small dogs); wrapped in a soft canvas litter; or strapped onto a Stokes litter, a metal wire or plastic stretcher with multiple attachment points so it can be carried by hand, attached to cables and hoisted up into a helicopter, or pulled behind a horse or skier. The Stokes litter can also be broken down into parts that fit into a backpack or horse pack.
Some rescues require a bit of ingenuity. Two years ago, a black Lab was stuck about 30 feet down a culvert that angled roughly 35 degrees. Rescuers couldn’t see her, although they could hear her whining. The culvert ran under a steep mountain road; at the other end was a 50-foot drop-off. One responder affixed a GoPro camera and a flashlight to the end of a flexible plumber’s snake, then sent it down the pipe while watching the video on an app on his smart phone. Seeing that the dog kept slipping on the pipe’s slick surface and couldn’t climb back up, the rescuers tied several lengths of ripped sheets to a rope and sent it down, giving the Lab enough traction to self-rescue. Without the GoPro, they wouldn’t have known how to save her.
Other rescues require brute strength, patience and determination. “Bossy” the cow became stuck in a muddy ravine in January 2015, a soggy season of rain and cold in western Washington. WASART deployed over two rainy days, assisted by a local vet who assessed Bossy’s condition and sedated her for everyone’s safety. A group from Back Country Horsemen of Washington came out and cleared brush on the ravine’s bank so that Bossy—after being loaded onto a glide (a flexible sled-like piece of equipment)—could be hoisted up the slope to safety.
When devastating wildfires hit communities in the Okanogan area of eastern Washington in July 2014, WASART deployed to help shelter displaced animals. Some WASART volunteers became overwhelmed as they spoke with residents who had lost everything. “The victims needed to talk to someone,” Eaves remembers, “but WASART volunteers aren’t trained for it. That doesn’t catch up to you for two or three weeks, when you don’t know why you’re suddenly yelling at your dog.” (WASART’s core training includes learning about compassion fatigue and how to take care of oneself in rescue situations; volunteer traumatology counselors provide psychological first aid to responders after difficult events.) A happier memory for Eaves includes local kids who set up a lemonade stand with handmade signs to raise money for “burned animals” and sent WASART their photo with a donation check.
WASART and similar animal-response teams operate on shoestring budgets, relying on volunteers who already have some personal equipment (helmets, gloves, harnesses) along with technical expertise and time to share. Volunteers are asked to pay for their training: Core, Field Response (animal handling), Transport and Emergency Sheltering. Other required certifications—FEMA and CPR—can be obtained from the government or Red Cross.
Technical Response Team members need additional specialized rope and climbing training. One of WASART’s major equipment expenses is, in fact, ropes, particularly technical climbing ropes, which must be replaced frequently because they degrade with use and washing. If ropes are used to hoist a heavy animal, they’re immediately replaced for safety reasons.
Currently, WASART has roughly 130 volunteers at various levels of training. Perhaps 50 of those have sufficient education and certification to go into the field. It’s tough, demanding work, with a high turnover rate, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. The generosity of these dedicated volunteers, as well as those who make financial donations, means that WASART never has to charge for rescues, and that animal owners needn’t hesitate before calling for help.
“This week we had two callouts for horses, with sad endings,” Eaves shared with me, trying to describe what drives her to pursue this work, especially since not every rescue ends happily. “As the vet was euthanizing one of the horses, I realized one of the things that makes this rewarding isn’t just that we are able to help immediately, to solve the problem and pack up and go home. What we do is more of a sprint in comparison to the more traditional foster-and-adopt rescues, which are more like a marathon. For the most part, we are there because the owners love their animals. At the second callout, all these people were standing in the field with their hearts in their eyes because they loved their horse. It’s no different for dogs, when you see the owners waiting anxiously for their buddy to be safe again. There is a lot out in the animal world to be sad about, but to see the care people have for their animals makes the hard stuff easier.”
While we all hope our companion animals will never need to be rescued, it’s heartening to know groups like WASART—with its compassionate, dedicated volunteers—exist, just in case they do.