Sonoma County emergency responders train in large-animal rescue

Ray Mulas knows how easily calamity can befall a prized heifer or horse.

The dairy cattleman has rescued cows that have rolled into salty sloughs off of levees or gotten stuck in the mud on his ranch south of Sonoma. As chief of the Schell-Vista Fire Protection District, he’s helped pluck animals from wells and tended to riders who’ve been pitched from spooked horses.

“We have more horses in Sonoma County than we did when they were the mode of transportation. We have a lot of trails, and accidents happen,” he said.

However, the techniques for rescuing animals in distress remain mostly primitive, usually involving little more than a rope, tractor or whatever else may be on hand. A Glen Ellen program aims to improve upon that by providing first responders across Northern California with better tools and training for these unique crisis situations.

HALTER, Horse and Livestock Team Emergency Response, seeks to save more animal lives by promoting uniform and professional standards for rescues, whether it’s in response to an overturned horse trailer or evacuations sparked by natural disasters such as fires or floods.

About two dozen firefighters, animal welfare advocates and veterinarians took part recently in the two-day certification course, culminating with simulated rescues at founder Julie Atwood’s Glen Ellen ranch.

Participants fanned out in small groups to practice what they learned in the classroom. One of the simulations entailed rescuing a horse - actually, a life-sized replica - that had fallen into a dry creek bed. The fake animal was pinned between a footbridge and a rocky outcropping, making the rescue more challenging.

The team successfully got the horse out of the creek bed using slip boards placed beneath the animal, special halters and ropes attached to a truck-mounted crane, which provided extra pulling power.

The effort was overseen by John Fox, founder of Large Animal Rescue and chief of the San Juan Bautista Fire Department in the Central Valley. He noted such rescues pose risks not just to animals, but also for first responders.

“One kick to the head and you’re dead,” he said.

Walking toward another simulation, team members expected to be confronted with the challenge of moving a horse that had fallen next to the creek. But as the group drew closer, they saw that a “person” was trapped beneath the animal.

“You can kill the horse. I don’t care,” instructor John Maretti told the group. “You have to get the horse off the guy.”

Once the rescuers moved the “horse” off the human dummy, they practiced tending to the animal’s needs. The goal of every such rescue is to save the lives of all concerned.

Maretti, a former Chico firefighter, is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities in animal rescue, particularly in evacuation situations during major disasters. He’s been to Nepal following an earthquake, to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and to Midwestern communities following tornadoes and floods. Closer to home, he was called in as flames swept across Lake County during September’s Valley fire.

He described knocking on doors on Cobb Mountain after the area had been evacuated and listening for barking or other audible sounds of animals that had been left behind. He said one major change when it comes to animal rescue is that the effort tends to be more coordinated, falling under incident-command protocols that are similar to those used for tactical response.

In December, Atwood responded to a downed horse on Enterprise Road, off Sonoma Mountain Road, along with Glen Ellen firefighters who had gone through the HALTER training.

Buzzy had fallen over on uneven ground inside a paddock and could not get back up onto his legs. The firefighters used rescue equipment purchased by HALTER to move the horse and roll him onto his chest so that he could get back up.

Atwood said such accidents are a frequent part of the ranching life. “It happens all the time,” she said while observing the training sessions at her ranch.

Six Sonoma County animal control officers participated in the Glen Ellen training, as did Mike Nevis, a sheriff’s sergeant who oversees animal services in Yolo County. He said the training was valuable because skills essentially can go to rust if not practiced.

Petaluma veterinarian Amber Johnson said she appreciated getting to know firefighters with whom she may be called upon to work in future emergencies.

The Schell-Vista department did not participate in the training, which will be offered again in the future. But Mulas said he was looking forward to the day when he could request mutual aid help from other Sonoma County agencies that now have personnel who are certified in animal rescue. The training is sanctioned by the state.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” Mulas said.

More information is available at

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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