Firefighters learn to rescue large animals

Whidbey Island holds a pretty clean safety record for large animal and livestock despite a plethora of equine events, bluff-side riding trails, highway trailer traffic and icy winter road conditions

“It’s a matter of time before there’s an accident,” said Peg Diefert, an Island County animal control officer.

Horse and livestock owners may be comforted to know that there’s a handful of skilled individuals who can help in the event of a disaster.

Last weekend John and Deb Fox of the Large Animal Rescue Company based in Hollister, Calif. taught a two-day, intensive workshop on large animal rescue, covering a blend of animal behavior and technical skills to equip the 17 participants with a mental toolbox full of troubleshooting tricks.

The Fox’s came to Whidbey Island at the request of the Equine Emergency Rescue Team, also called EERT, a grassroots organization that formed after a lecture by Mount Vernon veterinarian Ken Leisher about his experience at a large animal rescue workshop in Kentucky, said Connie Lloyd, a member of EERT and secretary for the Island County Backcountry Horsemen of Washington.

The committee approached the Backcountry Horsemen for financial support. The club offered scholarships to send one firefighter from each fire district on the island: north, central and south.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue sent an additional fireman. The remaining students carried a variety of credentials including veterinary medicine, animal rescue and horse owners, among other skill sets, and traveled from as far as Idaho to attend the class. Those without a scholarship paid a $200 fee for the instruction.

An equine-loving anonymous donor wrote a check for $750 to cover two days worth of lunch for the group, said Backcountry Horsemen member Jerry Lloyd. The extra money may go toward the purchase of large animal rescue equipment, or for further development of the program on Whidbey, he said.

“The idea is to train the future trainers,” said Jerry, who hopes the four firemen will share their newfound skills with their cohorts.

This training is important, he said, because dangerous situations can turn deadly if they’re not handled correctly.

“Horse owners were just so concerned,” Connie said of the the previous lack of large animal rescue expertise on an island full of horse and livestock. “Accidents are inevitable.”

Large animal owners may have some piece of mind now, knowing there are a handful of trained and tested first-responders who live on the island.

“We’ve got the impetus now,” she said.

The Equine Emergency Rescue Team will continue to keep in touch with the class participants and local fire districts to maintain the knowledge base and relationship formed during the class.

“This is great because it brings together the first responders who have the technical skills. They complement each other,” said Leisher, who also attended the class.

Lisa Kauffman, the Idaho state director of the United States Humane Society, leapt at the opportunity to take the class on Whidbey Island.

“This training is really sought after,” she said of the all-inclusive instruction that included lessons on every aspect of animal rescue from horse psychology and personal safety to technical skills and improvised equipment.

“You really learn to make due with what you have,” she said.

Most of the equipment used is stuff that’s already available, said Tim Perciful, an assistant instructor and safety officer for King County Fire District 44. Ropes and fire hoses can be used as a harness and pulley system to flip, pull, or lift a large animal to safety, he said.

Students ran through staged disasters with 500-pound, life-size horse manikins as part of the hands-on training.

“We set them up to think about it and then we let them figure it out,” Perciful said of the scenarios that simulated different disasters.

Almost every situation is unique and requires quick thinking, trouble-shooting and a healthy dose of improvisation, he said.

John Fox’s motivation to form a formal response unit began after a rescue went bad. An animal within a state park needed help, but he was unable to assist because he was not allowed into the area. The animal later died, but he heard from those who got in that the animal could have been saved had there been chain saws, more light and responders with animal rescue expertise.

The experience sent Deb and John into a two-year journey to create a large animal rescue certification program.

“Every section of the training had to go through experts, ropes experts, auto extrication, vets, animal trainers, horse owners, confined spaces, you name it,” John said.

“We’d see things in the field that help us develop new concepts and techniques,” Deb added.

In 2002, after much review and revision, the Large Animal Rescue certification was approved by California State Fire Training as a Fire Service Training Education Program.

John and Deb teach large animal rescue classes on the weekends one to three times each month in addition to their regular day jobs. John works as a Senior Investigator/Peace Officer for the California State Department of Public Health and Deb is a Paintings Conservator for Stanford University and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The Fox’s program isn’t certified in Washington state yet, but Perciful is working to get a large animal rescue certification program approved.

“It’s so important that the fire department is trained in large animal rescue,” Deb said. “The bottom line is if someone gets in trouble the fire department will be there.”

To learn more about the Equine Emergency Rescue Team, equine rescue efforts on Whidbey Island, or to donate call Jerry or Connie Llyod at 222-3445.

Visit to learn more about John and Deb Fox and their large animal rescue course.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 26
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates