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Animal volunteer group in county helps when needed
By Cindy Klepper - Thursday, December 15, 2016 8:22 AM
Originally published Dec. 15, 2016.
When an animal’s in trouble in Huntington County, there’s a team ready to respond.
The animal rescue team — a loosely organized group of volunteers, all experienced in working with animals — can handle everything from an emu on the loose to a frightened dog at the side of the road.
The team got its start in 2011 when Lori VanOver, who has served as Huntington County’s animal control officer since 2003, decided she needed some backup she could rely on.
“It was just me,” VanOver says. “Penny (Garretson) and Jenelle (Conley) volunteered part time.”
At the time, there had been several issues involving horses, prompting the formation of an equine rescue team. The team grew and evolved into an all-volunteer organization that could handle just about any type of animal emergency, with Garretson and Conley still among the volunteers.
“We’ve all agreed that if we need help and they’re available …” VanOver says. “I just call and say, ‘Can you come help?’ I’m the luckiest ACO in the whole wide world.”
The team is summoned as needed, averaging about one major incident a year. The biggies have included cattle roaming the interstate and horses caught in an overturned trailer. Other rescues are on a smaller scale, perhaps a dog running loose or in a dangerous situation.
“We’ve had a lot of random potbellied pigs,” Conley says.
“Usually once a day there’s something,” Van-Over says. “But sometimes there’s five in a day, and sometimes nothing.”
When large or unusual animals — such as the emu the team once captured — need a place to stay, team member Tom Wall will throw up a fence on his farm to provide temporary quarters, VanOver says.
Many of the animal rescue team members own large animals and have the trucks, trailers and know-how to move the animals from one place to another.
“Lori calls us if she thinks we need to move something,” team member Leslie Zahm says.
And they know how to handled frightened or injured animals, all the while keeping themselves safe.
“This group of people knows where we need to be for our safety and for the animals’ safety,” VanOver says. “We rely on the deputies to keep the others out of our way.”
“We usually know when to stay clear,” Chad Kreider says. “We’re very cautious, getting in and out without getting mauled or stomped or something.”
While members of the animal rescue team understand that others may want to jump in and help, they want bystanders to resist that urge. Their inexperience could lead to disaster for both the rescuers and the animals, they say.
Even firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement officers are not always trained in animal rescue.
“The sheriff’s department pretty much turns it over to us,” VanOver says. Team members, she adds, “know what to do after we get the animal out, how to calm it down.”
“You have to take your emotions out of it,” Zahm says.
“The end result is not always pretty,” VanOver adds.
One of the first major incidents handled by the animal rescue team was the removal of dozens of llamas from a Huntington County farm.
That’s the response that stands out in the mind of team member Linzy Zahm Lahr.
A Huntington County llama owner became unable to feed or care for his herd, VanOver explains, resulting in the deaths of 52 of the animals. The team loaded up and moved the 41 surviving llamas to safe homes.
A half-dozen or so llamas went home with Lahr, an experienced llama handler. She helped head up the operation, shooed onlookers away from the llamas and even broke a gate off a fence to compete the operation.
“Some stayed local, and the rest went to Southwest Llama Rescue,” VanOver says of the llamas.
Removing a neglected animal from its owner is a last resort, VanOver says.
“We like to work with the owner and educate them,” she says.
Help may be available for some injured and neglected animals.
“Some of the vet bills are astronomical on some of this stuff,” Zahm says.
The Chief LaFontaine Saddle Club maintains a Hooved Animal Fund to help in extreme cases, adding money to the fund each year, she says
When 32 cows wandered down I-69 after a 2012 crash, the team of Rusty and Dakota Sunday went to work — riding horses along the interstate, roping the cattle as they went. They had help from a half-dozen other members of the team.
The cattle, which were headed to a feedlot in LaGrange, had been set loose after a car broke a tie rod, crossed the median and hit the belly of the cattle truck.
The roundup lasted three days — a Friday, Saturday and Sunday — and one of the cattle got loose a second time. Frustrated law enforcement officers announced they were going to shoot the cow if the team couldn’t catch it. In the end, the team was successful.
“We lost one,” Rusty Sunday remembers. “It got down 69 and got hit by a truck … Phil (Kreider) found one in the middle of the field at night.”
There were wild mustangs in 2014 and, just last month, an overturned horse trailer with two horses inside. The truck pulling the horse trailer had started to sway and the trailer turned over on its side, leaving the horses intertwined with their feet stuck through the side air holes and their necks bent at odd angles.
One of the horses was able to get up and out of the trailer; rescuers had to dismantle a panel to free the second horse. That procedure took 10 to 15 minutes, team member Chad Kreider recalls, and the horses were returned home with nothing worse than a cut to the leg.
The first emergency crews on the scene — trained in rescuing people, not animals — had considered turning the trailer upright with the horses still inside, Rusty Sunday says.
“If the horses are caught in something and you turn it upright, they might break something or panic even more,” he says.
Each of the rescue team members is experienced in handling specific animals, VanOver notes.
“I know the worth of these people,” she says. “It is invaluable.”