The white poodle was motionless at the bottom of a pool when Beverly Hills firefighter John Karns and his unit arrived. They pulled up the prize pooch and attempted to revive it, to no avail, in front of the dog's distraught elderly owners.
None of the firefighters knew how to resuscitate a dog.
Today, more than 20 years later, Karns heads a southern Oregon fire department whose firefighters not only risk life and limb for fellow townspeople, but also for their furred, feathered and scaled neighbors.
Armed with 12 animal oxygen masks, the 26 men and women of the Ashland Fire Department are capable of performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on dogs, cats, hamsters, ferrets, birds, gerbils — even reptiles — who are in need.
There are several reasons for this specialty, among them the fire chief's memories of the poodle his unit could not save. "It's funny what calls stick with you," Karns said.
Ashland is a town of 21,000 nestled amid rolling hills and spanning meadows within the southern Cascade region of the state. It is best known as the home of the lauded Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which boasts nearly 800 performances a year.
But the Elizabethan thespian population might be upstaged by another sizable group in town: animals. "A whole lot of dogs and a whole lot of pets," Karns said. "And that's an understatement."
With Ashland's considerable pet population, the skills amount to an important public service, said firefighter Jennifer Hadden, owner of three dogs, six cats, 30 chickens and a goldfish named Pigfish.
"For most people, pets are part of the family," Hadden said. "So if we can help someone by saving their pet, it's awesome."
Karns sought and received a donation of the masks from Project Breathe, an initiative from pet product company Invisible Fence. The company donates the masks to first responders across the country. A local veterinarian, Dr. Alice Sievers, volunteered to help in training.
"It's not mouth-to-mouth, it's mouth-to-snout," Sievers said, while demonstrating CPR on a stuffed toy. Perhaps to the relief of firefighters, there is no actual mouth-to-snout contact, because of the masks.
Resuscitating animals is not entirely different from resuscitating people, but the intricate differences between the two are vital, she said. The key was demonstrating to firefighters what those differences are.
"It's about how they alter their skills to fit an animal situation," Sievers said.
On dogs, for example, the pulse is found on the femoral artery on the inner thigh, not on the neck. And reptiles can hold their breath a long time, making it difficult to tell whether they're receiving oxygen.
Despite their new capabilities, the department's primary objective has not changed. "Human life first, always," said Capt. Kelly Burns.
But the firefighters have wholeheartedly supported the program, Karns said. "None of them want to be in the situation I found myself in where there is a potential rescue of a pet and not be able to accomplish it."
Especially those animals that are most vulnerable, such as birds or gerbils, which are kept in cages and therefore unable to escape a fire. Tiny animals can sometimes be saved by turning the mask into an "oxygen tent."
"If you've got a gerbil that's breathing, just stick the whole gerbil in," Sievers said during a recent training session. She then mimicked a distressed, confused gerbil inside of a mask, to giggles from the firefighters.