When your cat gets stuck in a tree, you call the fire department. But what do you do when your 80-pound Great Dane-Mastiff mix takes a tumble from a 200-foot cliff in the Oregon backcountry?
Turns out there’s a number for that too.
When Ranger took that fall in the Santiam State Forest, his owner hiked out and dialed the Oregon Humane Society Technical Animal Rescue Team (OHSTAR), an elite crew of pet-loving volunteers trained to pluck wounded and distressed animals from the backcountry.
Ranger had gone missing while hiking with his owner on the Butte Creek Falls trail the previous evening. Unable to locate the missing dog that night, the owner returned the next morning and found Ranger at the base of a rocky outcropping. The big fella had fallen some 230 feet from a promontory overlooking Butte Creek, earning a broken front leg and plenty of scrapes and bruises.
Although rescuers could reach the dog via a trail, they decided the path was too steep to bring Ranger out on a rescue litter. So they switched to hero mode, with one member of the team rappelling to the rescue. After the rescuer secured Ranger in a specially designed chest harness, other team members hoisted dog and human together to the top of the cliff, then trundled the pooch to the trailhead in a wheeled rescue litter.
The operation was pretty standard stuff by mountain-rescue standards, though it’s not every day that a group of humans risk life and limb for an animal. Only a handful of agencies in the United States have dedicated animal rescue teams, though regular SAR crews sometimes respond to pet emergencies.
If you have to ask why, let me defer to the great Louis Armstrong, who famously said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Or perhaps it’s even simpler than that: The willingness to risk our lives to save an animal is what makes us human to begin with.
The OHS Technical Animal Rescue Team has transported injured owls to vets, kayaked to a local island to care for ill pelicans, picked up ailing snakes and donned hazmat suits to rescue abandoned pets from the homes of dead hoarders. This year they’ve kept busy saving pets from the Oregon wildfires, and travelled to Tennessee to assist in Hurricane Ida relief.
The majority female rescue squad springs into action any time there is a cat or dog that can’t be rescued or retrieved without technical rescue skills like ropework, rigging, and knot tying. They regularly train for high-angle rescues at Rocky Butte in Northeast Portland.
“Without ongoing training, we wouldn’t be able to make these rescues happen,” team member Angela Modzelewski explained.
“It’s easy to envision what the rescuer does: they’re the one who is lowered down the cliff to scoop up the animal and bring him or her to safety,” she said. “The other roles are less glamorous, but just as important. When I am practicing to be the rescuer, I literally trust the other seven people on my team with my life.”
Doggie rescue is not always glamorous. In 2019, the team rappelled into a patch of blackberry thorns and poison oak to rescue an endearingly scruffy mutt who had been trapped there for eight days.
Way back in 2014, the crew saved a 2-year-old husky-shepherd mix named Kenny G. Rogers after the dog tore off after a squirrel in the Columbia River Gorge. Kenny zigged when the rodent zagged, and ended up flying off a 150-foot cliff, fracturing both front legs and some teeth in the fall. It seemed a sure bet that Kenny would break even that day, but that was before the Technical Rescue Team sprung into action. Ten volunteers spent hours working to save Kenny, eventually lowering one of their own down the cliff face and hauling him to safety.
The team was back in the Gorge on Christmas Day that year, this time to rescue Sandy, a 3-year-old yellow Lab who snapped her leash and took a trail bend too fast. The dog fell 150 feet to a narrow ledge about 70 feet above the canyon floor. Rescuers worked almost until midnight to get Sandy out of that pickle. Miraculously, the pooch was able to walk down the trail on her own.
The Columbia River Gorge is dangerous territory for dogs with poor impulse control. Not far from the location of Kenny and Sandy’s adventures, Gracie the Labradoodle slipped off a 200-foot cliff while tussling with another dog.
“We kept hearing her rolling and rolling and we heard her hit on the ground and yelp out,” Gracie’s owner Michelle Simmons told the Associated Press at the time. “We didn’t hear anything after that.”
Certain that Gracie was a goner, Simmons and some friends held an impromptu memorial service. Standing on a riverbank, they pitched stones into the water while sharing happy memories of the departed Labradoodle. Just then, a hiker happened by and said that Gracie was perched on ledge nearby, still alive.
The Oregon doggie rescue crew scrambled to the scene. In an operation involving ten rescuers and several hours, a team member rapped down the cliff and carried Gracie to safety. When Gracie emerged from the darkness in the arms of a rescuer that night, the pooch had only scratches and bruises.
While there are only a few dedicated animal search and rescue teams in the U.S., it’s not uncommon for regular rescue crews to respond to pet emergencies. Last April, our own Kinga Philipps called on the Upper Ojai SAR team when her 80-pound Rottweiler, Lusha, was injured in California’s Los Padres National Forest.
Philipps and Lusha were about five miles up a backcountry trail when the dog cut her foot on a rock. After limping along for a few minutes, the big Rottweiler lay down and refused to budge. Philipps enlisted help from a school group, who carried Lusha in a tarp a short distance to their camp, according to the Ventura County Star.
That evening Philipps borrowed an InReach from one of the group’s chaperones, texting a friend who relayed the call to Ventura County Sheriff’s dispatchers. Six members of the volunteer rescue team hiked in the next morning.
“It’s not something we commonly do,” Deputy Jason Havelka said, adding that the dog rescue was good practice for saving injured humans. The team lifted Lusha onto a wheeled MacInnes Stretcher lined with Philipps’ Patagonia sleeping bag. The hike back included river crossings, rocks and other obstacles, complicated by the big dog’s tendency to shift her weight. Four team members each took a corner of the litter, while Philipps walked alongside Lusha, keeping her calm.
“She rode out like a princess on a litter,” she said.
OHSTAR is a skilled group of volunteers who rescue animals that are stranded or trapped and need human help to survive. Their work is supported entirely by donations to OHS.
Top photo: Kenny G. Rogers post-rescue. Oregon Humane Society photo