by Wendy Hunter
Wendy Hunter is a volunteer with the Animal Rescue of Fresno. ARF shares with KRL their animal rescue adventures every month.
The broadest, and maybe the most meaningful definition of volunteering is: Doing more than you have to because you want to, in a cause you consider good. -Ivan Scheier
So you’re out in the wilderness, enjoying a scenic hike amid the pine trees, with a glorious river racing below you. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you’re feeling like Snow White frolicking amongst the clover and wildflowers. You’ve made friends with the squirrels, fed a few deer, and have thankfully not crossed paths with anything larger, for instance, an angry mama bear. Life is good.
Suddenly, and without warning, storm clouds begin to gather overhead, and within minutes you’re soaking wet and scrambling for cover. Unfortunately, those bargain boots you bought at the Dollar Store are no match for that slimy moss on the boulders beneath your feet, and before you know it, you find yourself flat on your back. That giant backpack containing your cell phone, wallet, and flashlight has tumbled smack into the river, and the compass in your back pocket has been smashed to smithereens. Your granola bars are now feeding the fishes, and your first aid kit is being carried downstream by a very swift current. Not good.This is the kind of scary situation in which just about anyone can find themselves. Emergencies can happen any time of the year, and for the most part, we are unprepared for their arrival. In the summer we hear of many tragic drownings due to boating accidents; during winter’s icy grip, we read about unfortunate skiers being swallowed up by the thundering snow of an avalanche. But whether a child has disappeared from a backyard, or a homeowner is trapped beneath the rubble of his burned-out home, hundreds of rescue workers are there to help. And not just the human kind, but the canine kind as well. I’m talking about the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), where volunteers and their specially-trained dogs drive many miles and spend countless hours searching for the missing. Established in 1976, CARDA is a non-profit organization with over 150 certified dog teams throughout California, making them the largest search and rescue (SAR) dog group in the nation. A community of volunteers only, these amazing men and women are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, responding to requests from local, state, and federal law enforcement. One of these volunteers is East Bay resident, Maria, and her coal-colored herding mix, Susie Q.
A former Animal Rescue Fresno (ARF) dog, eight-week-old Susie Q was rescued from a high kill Coalinga shelter, along with three other pups. Her spotted siblings were quickly snapped up, but as Susie Q was predominantly black, her chances of finding a forever home were slim. She was eventually adopted in October of 2015 by Maria, who says she “loves the agility, focus, and love toward handlers that the herders give.” She explains why she decided to visit ARF while looking for a new dog to train, “Where else to look, but a city surrounded by farmers and ranchers?”
Maria’s first area search dog, Sailor, was a live-and cadaver-find dog, but is now retired. Susie Q is Maria’s second certified search dog, specialized as an HRD (Human Remains Detection) or cadaver dog. These dogs are trained to locate human decomposition, i.e., tissue, blood, bones, etc. This is one of four areas a dog can specialize in, the others being Water (locating human decomposition which radiates from underwater), Avalanche, and Disaster (finding victims of natural disasters like earthquakes). Only veteran handlers can train and work a specialized dog without becoming Area or Trailing certified first. In Maria’s case, Susie Q did not go through Area training, but Sailor did. Trailing dogs follow the path a lost person has taken, using a suitable scent article, like a sock or a glove. These trails are usually hours or days old. Area Search dogs are skilled in finding any human scent in a given locale, working off-leash, and covering substantial areas.
When Maria joined CARDA in 2008, she was a working woman with a husband and kids at home. As volunteers can spend up to 50-100 hours a month on training and searches, finding time for a job and home life is challenging. In addition, CARDA members are responsible for ALL costs including gas, dog expenses, and equipment. This includes everything from radios, batteries, GPS, backpacks, and sleeping bags, to duct tape, whistles, and insect repellent. Clothing is also paid by volunteers for such items as uniforms, boots, helmets, and rain pants. Dog collars, leashes, muzzles, etc., are also on the very long list of things that are required for SAR teams. Volunteers can expect to spend somewhere between $2,000 to $4,000 in the first couple of years alone. According to Maria, one of the biggest costs is vet bills. During Sailor’s career, he endured the removal of eight foxtails from his nose. Ouch. At $300-$400 apiece, those are pricey procedures. CARDA dog breeds vary greatly, and they must pass comprehensive temperament testing. Dogs have to adjust to different environments and weather conditions, must be well-socialized, and trained in agility, obedience, transport, and helicopter. I asked Maria why she thought Susie Q would be a good candidate for SAR and she replied, “I brought a list of evaluations that she had to pass, but there are no guarantees.”
The training process generally takes about two years; Maria and Susie Q are “Mission Ready,” having undergone a series of search tests before certification on March 21, 2017. When I spoke to Maria for this article, the dynamic duo had been on two searches in April, and were already scheduled for another one.
In addition to being certified in CPR and Emergency Medical Response, CARDA volunteers must learn important survival skills to keep themselves and their dogs safe while out in the wilderness. Efficiency with a map, compass, GPS, and radio transmission are key, along with expertise in man-tracking, ropes, patient transport, helicopter safety, and crime scene preservation. As you may have guessed, Maria and Susie Q have to be in tip-top shape for the kind of work they do, with searches lasting up to eight hours a day for possibly several days. Weather conditions can be unpredictable and the territory rugged, which can make for a rough night’s sleep if you’re forced to make camp for the evening. I’m sure Susie Q makes a nice pillow.
As an organization that participates in 200-400 searches annually, using only volunteers, CARDA has saved taxpayers millions of dollars. Their teams have been used in high-profile search missions including the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Oakland firestorm. And let’s not forget the canine finds that might not make the morning headlines or the evening news; for instance, the elderly dementia patient who wanders from home, unable to return because she can’t remember her address. Or the loner down the street who isn’t reported missing for several days, because he has no family or friends. It’s physically, as well as mentally challenging work, because not all searches end on a happy note. Maria says the most gratifying thing about SAR, other than having a missing person returned to loved ones, is, “Being proactive, boots on the ground.”
It’s that extremely positive attitude, self-confidence, and long-term commitment to something you love, that makes for a great volunteer. At Animal Rescue of Fresno, all of our fantastic volunteers have that same can-do mindset. We’re not afraid to get deep in the dirt, muddy up our shoes, and chase a couple of Chihuahuas down at bedtime. Because every so often, it’s all about the excitement and the unknown and what an adventure life can truly be. For Maria and Susie Q, their adventure is just beginning, and I’ve no doubt they’re be up for many missions ahead. Case in point; when I asked Maria how Susie Q acclimated to her training, she replied, “Acclimation? Well, it’s a way of life for both of us, we both look forward to it. We don’t knit.”
Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section and check back every month for another animal rescue adventure from ARF. Advertise in KRL and 10% of your advertising fees can go to a local animal rescue.