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Big animals, big challenges for rescuers

Looking down at the rain-swollen creek and the 29-year-old horse that had fallen in and was close to drowning in the cold water, Columbia River Fire and Rescue Chief Jay Tappan thought, “Wow, I don’t know if this is going to work.”

It took emergency responders 45 minutes to pull the horse out after it escaped from the Welch Stables in the Yankton area near St. Helens and fell into Milton Creek Dec. 17. In those 45 minutes, Tappan saw a countywide issue: How do emergency responders rescue large animals?

“It’s starting to become kind of a big deal,” he said. The Milton Creek horse rescue was the third to occur in a nine-month period last year.

For Columbia County, like many other rural counties where large, domesticated animals are a part of the landscape, the question of who deals with rescues depends largely on who is available at the time the call comes in, said Animal Control Officer Roger Kadell. And, the “how” almost always relies heavily on community resources.

“We start calling people we know that are horse people, that are veterinarians,” Kadell said. “People show up with tractors and backhoes.”

“The fire department is great about jumping in, though,” he added. “Usually I’m standing back, watching.”

CRFR Division Chief Brian Burright knows of other fire departments across the nation who have developed standardized methods for dealing with large animal rescues, some even have special teams — something Columbia County definitely does not have the resources for, he said.

When it comes to more complex operations, such as in cases of animal neglect or abuse, Kadell calls on the Oregon Humane Society and its team of trained animal rescuers. But, with OHS based in Portland, Columbia County is often on its own.

And large animal rescues are rarely routine. When firefighters respond to a situation, they can be completely on their own for the first hour, and they have to work quickly. They are dealing with an animal that is injured, fearful or under stress and that doesn’t always realize the firefighters are there to help, Burright said.

While CRFR may not have a rescue team, its flat, thick fire hoses are usually perfect for the job — and there are plenty of them, Tappan said. When they wear out and are no longer able to be used for fighting fires, they can find a new life for use in animal rescues.

Ron Youngberg, the on-scene duty chief at the Milton Creek horse rescue, said a fire hose and harness system was enough to pull the struggling horse, Poco, out of the creek. Poco was moved quickly to a stall and Lew Fowler, a veterinarian from Midway Veterinary Clinic, examined him.

CRFR has been working with Fowler to design rescue harnesses that are “more friendly, less harmful” to large animals, Burright said. They also reach out to local animal experts whenever possible.

“When [the animals] are mired in the mud and laying on their sides, they don’t lend themselves very well to any harness you design,” Burright said. Every rescue, he added is “very dynamic and very different.”

“The terrain is always going to be a challenge,” he said. “There isn’t going to be one fit, one response.”

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