After the EF-3 tornado tore through Hugo last May, the Hugo Fire Department pulled dazed and injured people from flattened homes. Family pets were trapped in the wreckage, or running scared and confused nearby. Thanks to the legacy of a German shorthaired pointer, the emergency responders were prepared to rescue them as well.

Owners risk lives to save pets

In March 2008, the Hugo department received first-responder training for companion animals from Basic Animal Rescue Training (BART). Little did the participants know that in just two months, their newly learned skills would be put to the test.

Those skills included how to safely capture animals; check their vital signs and make a preliminary assessment of a pet's condition; and do basic first aid and CPR.

"The real benefit of the training was raising our awareness," says Kevin Colvard, training and safety captain for the department. "It helped us recognize that homeowners will risk their lives to save their pets - run back into a burning building or refuse to leave their homes. We also learned the best way to catch animals that's safe for us and them."

Bart inspired BART

The inspiration for BART arose from the death of Bart, a German shorthaired pointer who died of smoke inhalation when his family's home caught fire. One of the firefighters told the story to his wife, Dr. Janet Olson, cardiology resident at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. Moved by Bart's death and the helpless feeling of the firefighters, Olson founded BART in 2004 to train emergency responders in animal rescue.

The need for BART's work was underscored when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and people fleeing the rising waters had to abandon their pets. Members of the Minneapolis Fire Department, who helped with emergency response and cleanup, found they spent a big chunk of their time rescuing and caring for pets. On their return, the department contacted BART about training.

Since 2004, BART has trained more than 2,500 emergency responders. At a typical training session, participants rotate to three stations - vital signs, CPR and catch-and-restrain - staffed by BART-certified vets, technicians, pet volunteers and their handlers. Helping with that training is a cadre of volunteers. Cindy Lou Ferris of Minneapolis and her Alaskan Malamute Chagall are two of those volunteers.

Chagall teaches catch-and-restrain

Chagall, with her formidable size and strength, makes an excellent "victim" for BART students to practice their catch-and-restrain skills. On Ferris' "Run, run, run!" command, the 80-pound Chagall darts and dashes to evade her pursuers, who valiantly chase her with a rope snare and extension pole. Once caught and controlled, the students check Chagall's vital signs and bring her to "safety." Chagall takes a quick breather, and then run-run-runs for the next group.

"Chagall is the trainer at BART, not me," says Ferris. "I'm just there to give her commands." Chagall was an unlikely candidate for volunteer work. (She also volunteers at the nursing home where Ferris' father lives.) Ferris adopted her when Chagall was, as she puts it, "an unruly 65-pound monster," who wasn't housebroken, nearly pulled Ferris down the steps on several occasions and was determined to be the boss. "I didn't want to give up on her, but it was either learn to control her or find her a new home," Ferris says. Seventeen training classes later, most of them with a personal trainer for one-on-one attention, the now three-year-old Chagall is a model of restraint, enjoying her volunteer outings.

Rescuing pets saves human lives

Dr. Karina Burger, vice president and executive director of BART, says the training isn't just about animal rescue, but also public safety. "During Katrina, people refused to leave their pets behind, and some lost their lives in the flooding. BART gives emergency responders another way to keep the public safe when their animal family members are in danger."

BART also provides contact information for veterinarians and the Minnesota Animal Disaster Coalition so rescuers know what resources are available for pets that need treatment or emergency housing. That was a big plus for the Hugo Fire Department. "After the tornado, we had our hands full, and it was great to know who else we could call to make sure peoples' pets were found and sheltered," says Colvard.

Burger says, "It was great seeing BART training in action in Hugo. Animal rescue was integrated into the rest of the disaster response, just as we knew it could be." For more information about BART, visit www.basicanimalrescuetraining.org.

Patricia Miller is Top Cat at Laughing Cat Communications, a communications planning, writing and editing company based in Minneapolis. Contact her at patty@laughingcatonline.com.