Put on the planet to rescue animals

September 11, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

WILLIAMSPORT - T. Connor Michael has rescued hundreds of animals endangered by floods, fires, hurricanes and other disasters.

But he doesn't like to be called a hero, he said.

"I like getting the job done. I don't care about the kudos," said Michael, 52, of Williamsport. "I love animals and I just want to make sure they're taken care of. If you're in it to be a hero, you're in the wrong business."

As operations coordinator of emergency services for the American Humane Association, Michael travels the nation in Animal Planet Rescue, an 82-foot rolling disaster relief rig sponsored by the AHA and Animal Planet cable TV channel.

Animal Planet Rescue features a mobile veterinary clinic, command center, sleeping quarters, kitchen and hordes of equipment for use in rescue operations. The rig also serves as a touring center to educate people about how to prepare for and handle the care of their animals during disasters.


"If it's not safe for you during a disaster, it's not safe for your pets," Michael said.

He hatched his idea for the rig after Hurricane Andrew struck in 1993.

Michael was driving a truck, working part time as a local animal control officer and teaching national seminars on exotic animal capture when the hurricane devastated southern Florida.

There was no water, electricity, phone service, fuel or medical service. Looting was rampant. Relief efforts were unorganized.

Michael suggested a fully equipped rig that could assist at disasters for a minimum of three days. The AHA launched the program, which mushroomed after Animal Planet came aboard in 1998, Michael said.

"It was a wonderful marriage," he said. "The great thing about Animal Planet is that they actually believe in animals."

The spirit of cooperation alive in the relationship between the AHA and Animal Planet also shines at disaster scenes, Michael said.

"You can't do a disaster without everyone cooperating," he said.

He and his co-workers have responded to disasters from California to Canada, rescuing animals ranging from domestic dogs and cats to birds and venomous snakes.

Many animals are so scared that they resist or avoid capture, Michael said.

"You can't say, 'Here, kitty kitty,' and expect the cat to come to you. It's terrified," he said.

During floods, many animals head for high ground - which might mean the rescuer's head, Michael said.

Animal rescuers must have at least five years of experience as animal control officers so they know how to handle animals, he said. They must be certified swift water technicians so they can work in flood conditions without endangering themselves or others.

They must know how to rappel off cliffs, be able to carry 45 pounds for three miles within 30 minutes, and have basic human life-saving skills that can be modified for animals, Michael said.

He and his co-workers recently rescued animals caught in the Rodeo-Chediski fires in New Mexico. They saved more than 500 animals - from gerbils to dogs - during the Red River flood in Fargo, N.D., in 1997, Michael said.

They used a giant sling to pull exhausted horses from floodwaters during Hurricane Hugo in North Carolina. They cared for the cadaver dogs that searched debris for human DNA following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Michael said.

When Hurricane Floyd flooded hog farms in North Carolina, Michael and his cohorts donned dry suits to protect them from the "vile," contaminated waters before jumping in to save as many of the drowning pigs as possible, he said.

"You can't save a 500-pound sow because you can't move a 500-pound sow," Michael said.

Using dead hogs as stepping stones to reach the live ones, he and his co-workers rescued 4,000 of the 6,000 drowning pigs, he said.

The satisfaction he derives from saving threatened animals and returning them to their oft-traumatized guardians makes worthwhile the emotionally and physically challenging work, Michael said.

"When you help the animal, you help the human," he said.

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