Rescuing animals is a dangerous but hugely rewarding job. Buster Brown, an animal rescue specialist based at Havant fire station, gives his own fascinating account of his job
I joined Hampshire fire brigade which became Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service in January 1979 – a very cold and snowy start to my career.
After initial training at Eastleigh I was posted to Cosham fire station where I stayed until my promotion to Havant in 1984 where I have remained to this day.
In those early days firefighters would get called out to rescue all sorts of animals.
Cats up trees were the obvious call but in reality we rarely attend such incidents. It’s an urban myth.
But we respond to any incident the control room sends us to.
In those days we were, in reality, poorly equipped and trained to carry out such rescues of large animals like horses and cattle.
But it did not stop us having a go. After all no-one else was going to help.
I can recall one incident where a large horse was stuck in a deep ditch alongside Purbrook Way in Havant.
We arrived and the only equipment we had in those days was lengths of hose which we tried to place around the horse’s body so that we could manually try to pull it free.
Bearing in mind the animal probably weighed 600kg and there were only four of us it was going to be a tough job to complete.
The horse was agitated and placing the hose around its body was proving to be difficult.
We were getting pushed and pulled by this animal.
We were in danger of getting injured and injuring the horse by causing it unnecessary stress.
As we attempted to free the horse, a large gentleman arrived wearing a checked shirt with rolled-up sleeves and jeans with turn-ups and brown Dr Marten boots.
He shouted at us to get out of the way as he removed his large leather belt from his jeans.
Before we could react he swung his belt buckle on to the horse’s rear end with such a slap the horse jumped out of the hole and started running around the field, leaving us to scatter in all directions to avoid the wild horse.
The horse was free but it was an inhumane method which could have resulted in injury.
Thankfully Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service has moved on.
In the mid-1990s Havant was given a new appliance – the multi-role vehicle.
This could carry various loads, salvage, environmental protection, breathing apparatus, cylinders and foam equipment loads. And it carried a specific animal rescue load.
This comprised rescue slings, strops, and large animal lifting equipment, leg crooks and other equipment to enable safer large animal rescues.
The MRV also had a Hiab crane fitted to the back of the appliance that could lift up to 1.2 tonnes – ideal for animal rescue.
Two fire officers, Jim Green and Anton Phillips, realised we were poorly equipped to safely undertake animal rescue and they persuaded the fire service to train certain stations with the procedures, techniques, and knowledge to manage large animal rescues.
This included training at Sparsholt agricultural college, along with training in methods used to rescue large animals.
They were the pioneers in what are now regarded as one of the most dangerous types of incidents firefighters are likely to attend.
Hampshire’s animal rescue specialists are now regarded as the lead in this subject – training most other fire services in the UK and Europe with further training given to teams as far away as Turkey and Australia.
We have obtained accreditation from the British Equine Veterinary Association. The fire service also trains student vets in large animal trauma care at Lyndhurst fire station.
So Havant became one of the three stations that responded to large animal rescues.
Over the years that followed I attended many incidents recovering horses and cattle that had become trapped in various situations – stuck in deep ditches, rivers, fallen into wells and involved in transport road traffic incidents trapped inside overturned horse boxes. Each job was taxing but the experience we gained was immense.
It was apparent the more calls we responded to, the more we received because our expertise was being recognised. The rural community, horse and cattle owners were willing to allow us to assist.
The days of slapping with a leather belt were over.
In 2007 I took whole-time retirement, but I was able to continue as a retained firefighter at Havant.
In 2008 I was taken on as one of only four animal rescue specialists in the county.
This involved further training, in subjects that included handling marine mammals like seals and porpoises, handling dangerous dogs, and handling techniques involving reptiles.
We receive calls from Heathrow Airport animal handling centre. This includes dangerous snakes, crocodiles, spiders and birds of prey. We also work along side RSPCA officers assisting them with smaller animal entrapments.
My role is very changeable in regard to incidents involving animals, with both agricultural stock animals and horses, to pets and exotic pets, reptiles, as well as dangerous dogs that are used to protect properties which firefighters are required to enter to put out a blaze.
I recently attended an Alsatian pup that had got its head trapped in an ornate metal gate.
The owner had tried to release it by using olive oil as a lubricant but this failed.
On my arrival the owner, an elderly lady, was quite apologetic for calling me but she did not know what to do.
The poor dog was covered in olive oil which made holding it quite slippery.
After a few moments I was able to use bolt croppers to cut it free. To me it was obvious what to do.
But when it’s your animal that’s stuck it sometimes is difficult to think logically just how to release it.
I was called to a fox cub trapped between two garages in Emsworth.
The occupier could hear the plaintive cries for help from the cub during the night and this continued the following day. After searching around his property he managed to locate it.
When I arrived I realised that the only way I could release it was to cut a hole into his garage brick wall and reach down to the cub. So after some careful measuring I was able to make a start. I had to be mindful that none of the loose brick rubble fell on to the cub as I drilled and chiselled down.
After an hour or so the cub was free, I gave it a quick inspection. It had no injuries but was very feisty so I released it in the garden.
It was last seen jumping the fence without a thank you!
Horses and cattle
OUR main workload that can be considered dangerous is incidents involving horses and cattle, especially with horse owners who become involved and can place themselves in situations not realising the dangers they place themselves in around a trapped horse.
My role is to assess the situation and call the appropriate response to resolve the incident.
This will require the attendance of a vet at most horse incidents.
Having the animal sedated during the rescue not only makes it safer for the firefighters, it reduces the stress to the horse, and in many cases the horse may need treatment after the recovery.
I have attended a few calls to cattle loose on the highway – these are very difficult to control.
With potentially a tonne of cattle running wherever it likes on the road, members of the public and the services are in extreme danger.
Sadly on many occasions it is necessary to have police marksman present to shoot the animal before it causes injury to the public.
During my near 30 years as a whole-time firefighter I possibly attended three or four cats in trees.
But as an animal rescue specialist I have attended over 150 calls during the last six years. So why do I go to these incidents?
There is a saying ‘you don’t see skeletons of dead cats in tree tops do you?’.
Well, we have criteria set up by the RSPCA and we leave the animal to make its own way down for about 48 hours unless either it’s a very young cat or obviously injured.
One wet misty evening I was called to recover an injured cat from the top of a 440-volt power cable pole. The cat had been chased by two dogs and it had been bitten.
When I arrived I noticed a ladder up the pole; a neighbour had watched the attack and tried to climb the pole to rescue the cat.
He didn’t not even stop to consider his own safety, until, in his own words, he said ‘it wasn’t until I could feel the hairs on my arms standing up and could hear the buzzing of the electricity that I realised I was in danger of electrocution’. He was lucky not to have been killed.
I was able to arrange Scottish and Southern Energy to isolate the power before the cat was recovered.
One night I was called out to a cat incident in Fraser Road in Havant. A man could hear a commotion in his garden and noticed a cat with a tin stuck on its head.
I squeezed the tin into an oval shape and gently twisted it free.
Birds of prey are lovely animals but sometimes they manage to fly free and escape.
A beautiful Harris hawk had managed to fly off its perch in the garden when the retaining clip failed.
The bird only flew a few yards down the garden but went high up into the tree, where its jessies (thin leather leg straps) became tangled on the tree branch.
I was able to use a short ladder and wearing my safety harness I was able to work and prevent myself falling.
I was able to cut the branch the hawk was perched on with a saw, and then slowly I was able to pull the branch with the hawk still trapped towards me until I had it in my gloved hand. I was surprised just how tight its grip was and very grateful for my leather gauntlets, preventing its talons from damaging my hand.