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Special unit ready to roll to rescue animals

January 27, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT - Connor Michael's emergency rescue efforts are aimed at animals.

When chaos strikes - from earthquakes or floods to hurricanes or toxic chemical spills - Michael is ready to swing into action with what he says is the most sophisticated animal rescue team ever assembled.

Michael, who lives south of Williamsport, operates the $250,000 mobile command unit, a 75-foot long, 25-ton, specially equipped tractor-trailer.

"Now, all we need is money to keep it rolling," said Michael, who developed the idea and pitched it to the American Humane Association, which funded the project.

Money, he said, is a constant concern since it costs about $200,000 to keep the command unit on the road.

Doug Trowbridge, program coordinator for field services of the Englewood, Colo.-based organization, said the group is searching for corporate sponsorship. He said Project HEART - an acronym for Humane Emergency Animal Relief Team - would have proved invaluable during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, flooding in the Midwest in 1993 and other major catastrophes.

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The unit, a state-of-the-art search and rescue command center, thus far has made a few promotional trips but has not responded to a major disaster, Michael said.

Trowbridge said he hopes a business will find it beneficial to support the project. If so, he said the unit could be used at company events. In addition to rescuing animals, he said it could be used for a training site and a roving spay/neuter clinic.

"There's all sorts of things it can do for the betterment of animals," Trowbridge said.

Lori Davis, development coordinator for the Washington County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the SPCA brought in the unit for a demonstration before Christmas.

"It is hard to say enough about it," she said. "I think it's pretty amazing that it resides in this county."

In case of an emergency, there is nothing else like Project HEART anywhere in the world, Michael said. It carries up to 300 gallons of fresh water and enough food for humans and animals for a week.

It also carries one boat for whitewater rescue, another for still-water rescue and a four-wheel-drive "ambulance" truck.

The trailer has cages, including one large enough for big animals, such as lions or tigers. Michael said the unit can hold up to 100 animals at once.

The truck is equipped with a surgery area, in which a veterinarian can preform emergency operations on injured animals.

The unit has nine bunks, a half-bathroom, a shower, a microwave oven, two-way radios, phones, a fax machine and a TV and VCR.

History of helping

The unit might be new, but the American Humane Association's history of rescuing animals is not, Michael said.

Ever since the U.S. Army asked the association for help rescuing horses from World War I battlefields, it has been helping out.

Without a mobile command center, however, Michael said rescue workers were extremely limited.

"When you go down there without anything, you become a drain on the resources," he said. "And that's not what we want."

In a disaster that kills a dozen people, countless more animals perish, Michael said.

So when they were designing the rescue unit, planners wanted something big enough and versatile enough to be self-sustaining over a long period of time, he said.

Many temporary shelters set up at disaster sites refuse pets for health and other reasons, he said. As a result, many animals are left behind.

During rescue missions, Michael envisions a sophisticated cataloging procedure in which animals are photographed and recorded. If the unit becomes full, animals can be transferred to shelters in other areas.

When the immediate crisis is over, a pet owner can look up an animal in a log book and officials will know where to retrieve it, he said.

The rescuers, which Trowbridge said are paid a fee while working at a disaster site, are highly trained in rock-climbing, whitewater rescue and a variety of other disciplines. Michael said the team is nationally accredited and each member takes annual refresher courses.

Giving back

Michael, who professes a lifelong love of animals, said he became involved in animal issues because he wanted something more meaningful than his former job as a furniture mover.

"I wanted to give something back to the planet," he said. "I didn't want my tombstone to say: `He was a pretty good mover and he didn't break too much.'"

Michael, who has adopted several pets from animal shelters, is a part-time humane officer with the county SPCA and does contract work for the American Humane Association.

In addition, Michael trains other rescue workers. Many of the techniques are the same for people and animals, but there are a few exceptions, he said.

For instance, if a person is drowning, you throw out a flotation device attached to a rope. But a dog can't grab onto a flotation device, Michael said.

Ideally, he said, he would like to have two other rescue command centers in service to cut response time to an disaster.

For now, though, he and the American Humane Association have their hands full just keeping the first one running.

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