No job is too big or too small for the volunteers of the Animal Rescue Reserve
By Stephanie Thompson
Animal lovers choose to live in San Diego County’s backcountry because that’s where they can keep horses, cows, llamas, donkeys, and a variety of other animals for fun and for profit. But the larger the property and the more remote the location, it seems, the greater the danger when disaster strikes.
In 1970, San Diego Humane Society officials were distraught over the loss of many animals’ lives during the Laguna Fire. Owners didn’t have a way to move their animals or couldn’t get them to safety. In other cases, private citizens tried to help by rescuing the animals but were unable to return them afterward. Worse still, some asked for large fees to reunite the animals with their rightful owners. “That’s when San Diego Humane Society realized we needed to have a team ready and trained to help animals during disasters,” says Officer Travis Beeson, who has spent the last decade working as a Humane Law Enforcement officer for SDHS.
Since May 1971, SDHS’s Animal Rescue Reserve has been helping secure and care for animals during disasters in San Diego County, and making sure they’re reunited with their owners when the crisis is over. This group is trained to help animals caught in all sorts of terrible situations. Although they’re part of the Humane Law Enforcement department, unlike any other animal rescue organization in California, the members of this team are not paid—they sign up, undergo training, and remain on call out of pure love for animals and a desire to help.
The ARR has about 60 members on call at all times, coordinated by Volunteer Captain Bob Callen. Private citizens train for many hours in order to serve on the team, and can be called out to help with anything from animals threatened by wildfires to a horse trapped in a swimming pool or a dog stuck down a well. Officer Beeson says, “I’ve personally helped with a cow trapped in a ditch under the 94 freeway, an overturned horse trailer on I-15, a kitten stuck in a drainage pipe, and a horse who fell down a 150-foot cliff, among many others.”
ARR members can be activated for a rescue at any time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Its Technical Rescue Team is expertly trained to rescue animals with equipment specific to the situation—cliff rescues, floodwaters, swift-running rivers or channels, ravines and so on. San Diego’s ARR has also been tapped to assist in national efforts, such as disaster relief during Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike. Beeson estimates the ARR responds to about 20 or 30 calls per year, on average, but is especially busy during fire season.
Beeson says many volunteers have previous experience working with large animals, but it’s not required. All volunteers receive monthly training to develop specific skills relating to animal rescue: This can include small and large animal handling, command post operations, training for specific scenarios, fire safety, and more. Calls often go out based on which volunteers’ skills are needed for the situation.
One such volunteer is San Carlos resident Pete McConnell. He has an extensive background in electronics and emergency management, and in July 1992 he had recently retired from his career as a wildland firefighter and was looking for something to keep him occupied. “I attended an amateur radio event at old Missile Park in Kearny Mesa,” he says, “and ARR had a display booth and were actively recruiting amateur radio operators for the unit. I felt this activity would be right down my alley.” McConnell started out as a scout communicator and handler for the unit. Over the past 25 years he has performed many different tasks, and is currently the lieutenant of operations, participating in four or five major rescues a year. “The largest operation I was involved in was the rescue of 122 horses from the Tijuana River, and the airlifting of five horses from a flooded barn. The roof had to be removed to access the horses,” says McConnell, who has two adopted cats. “The very best part is being involved in a successful rescue and the expression of relief and gratitude of the owners.”
Suzanne VanLancker was volunteering with a small animal rescue organization in her community of Valley Center when she heard about the ARR five years ago. She recalls the fires of 2007, saying there was no organized animal rescue effort; it took the Red Cross three days to reach them. “People did it on their own,” she says. “They brought their animals to our house; we ended up with 28 horses boarded here until the emergency was over.” So when VanLancker heard about the ARR’s monthly training sessions and its ability to respond to emergencies countywide, she knew she wanted to be part of it. After completing the required FEMA classes online and live animal handling and rescue training, VanLancker can now respond to fires and other emergencies with her own truck and horse trailer to extract animals in danger.
“Going behind the fire lines is very nerve-racking,” says VanLancker, who has three horses, two llamas and four dogs of her own. “It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. But it’s very rewarding to help those who can’t move their own animals. We deal with stressed animals, and also stressed owners. That’s part of our training.” She points out that volunteers don’t all have to work in the field or face down fires—there’s plenty to do in the receiving facilities or offices as well.
One of her most recent rescues involved extracting 50 miniature donkeys who were in the path of the June 2016 Potrero Border Fire. Large-scale operations like these are exciting, but also give volunteers a chance to put their training and skills to use. “ARR has a very robust training program,” VanLancker notes. “My husband, who is retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, says we train more than the marines do! Our goal is to become the best, to become a training center for other rescue groups nationwide.”
Earlier this year, a horse fell into a pool in Alpine on a night when temperatures were expected to drop below freezing. (See photo on p.TK) The ARR Technical Rescue Team was on the scene within 30 minutes, and it took some specialized equipment, five ARR members, four firefighters, and three humane officers to safely rescue the horse from the pool with only minor injuries.
“This rescue team is unique because our victims can’t call for help,” Beeson says. “They don’t even know we’re trying to help them. Often we have to restrain them, especially the larger animals who are panicking and can really hurt themselves or us. They don’t know how to cooperate with us. So we can’t use the same equipment with them as we could with people.”
On the other hand, he continues, the unique challenges of animal rescue are also what make it so satisfying. “They don’t have their own voice. We have to speak for them, and listen when they need us.”