Warning: This story contains a somewhat graphic image of a hand injury.
There is a pivotal moment in each dog rescue video when the rescuer successfully places the leash over the dog’s head, the dog is safely captured in a humane trap, or the rescuer daringly grabs the dog out of desperation. And in that moment, the viewers all cheer, cry, or smile with joy; for in this moment they know the dog is safe.
On video, the rescuer makes it look so simple and they seem so calm. But what the viewer doesn’t see or feel is the anticipation, fear, or anxiety of the rescuer as they are in that moment. And the viewer can’t feel the pain if the rescuer happens to get bit.
In June 2013, I got badly bit while trying to rescue a homeless dog. Since then, I’ve been promising the rescue community that I would write the story of that day, but every time I sit down and begin to write, I lose my breath. It’s not easy to look back at all that happened on that fateful day or during the weeks that followed.
It’s been 365 days since I took that bite. And on each of those 365 days, I think about that one moment when I made a desperate decision to go for the grab. It took months for my wounds to heal. It took even longer for my courage.
I’m a stronger person today than I was a year ago, and most definitely a smarter rescuer. But even so, I still struggle to find the words to describe all that happened. I feel I must at least try and tell this tale though, for you and for me. For me, it is cathartic. And for you — just maybe you’ll come to understand a more painful side to the often-idolized street rescuer, because it’s all fun and games ’til someone takes a bite.
I was headed to South Central to rescue a dog, and along the way, I saw a different stray running down a high-traffic street. The dog was small, roughly 20 pounds, scruffy, injured, and looked like he would be relatively easy to catch. My car was packed with rescue gear and with cheeseburgers in my pocket, I was ready to get to work. After more than 90 minutes of trying with a leash, a catchpole, and even a trap, I was striking out. The dog outsmarted each of my tricks.
Then, for some reason, flower petals blowing in the grass distracted the dog. He was mesmerized and stood frozen watching the colorful petals dancing in the wind. At that moment, the catchpole and leash were laying 20 feet from where I stood. I had no tools. All I had were my hands.
In that split second, I weighed the odds of what could happen. I knew there was a good chance I would get bit, but even better odds this was my only opportunity to save him. So, taking the lessons I had learned during my time rescuing, I went for the “praying mantis” grab. As I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck with my right hand and attempted to pull him close to me, he panicked. Flinging his body from side to side, I tried to control his movements, but he squirmed and managed to bite my left hand. HARD. So hard, I lost my grip, and as I did, he bit my right hand.
At this point you might be asking yourself, “How much pain could I handle and still hold on tight to a dog knowing his life is at risk?” I’ve endured massive bites before, and have been able to hold on, but nothing could prepare me for the pain I felt as his tooth crushed through my knucklebone, completely shattering it. So yes, my body’s natural instinct to protect itself kicked in and I let go of the dog. He took off, and was gone.
As I fell to my knees, tears flooded my eyes. I wasn’t crying from the pain, though. I was crying for the dog. I had let him down by doing something stupid. And now I was too injured to try and find him. He might die out there, but his fate could have been different had I been more patient or I had called for backup.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how serious my injuries were. They didn’t look that bad to the human eye, but the massive infection growing beneath the skin of both my hands painted a much uglier picture.
Less than 24 hours after being bit, I was rushed to emergency surgery at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. We were told that if I had waited much longer, I might have lost some fingers, if not my hand. The doctors drew markers on my hands tracing how far and how fast the infection was spreading. Every few minutes they drew a new line further up my arm.
I don’t recall much from the next few days. Maybe because of the drugs, or maybe because I was that frightened by all that was happening. The surgeons had removed a large amount of tissue from my hands in an effort to contain the infection. I had drains running through the wounds and IVs pumping antibiotics directly to my heart. The infectious disease specialist who was assigned to my case notified us that I would have to remain in the hospital for several days. It turned out to be eight. We had expected to discover that I had contracted staph or MRSA. The doc described the infection as “red, rodlike, and very angry.” However, it turned out to be an infection from good old-fashioned dog bacteria.
On day eight, they felt like they finally had the infection under control and agreed I could go home, but only if they could insert a pic line to my heart. For the next two weeks, I would be stuck at home on bed rest, and James (my husband) would have to administer IV antibiotics through the pic line every six hours.
Over the next two months, I struggled to get healthy. My left hand remained swollen and stiff, while the lingering infection stole what little energy I had. But the mental trauma I was suffering was far worse than the physical. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to rescue again. Or if I tried, would I freeze up? And should I even be out there doing street rescue after all I had been through and put my family through?
I had countless conversations with loved ones about this, and the general consensus surprised me. James put it best when he said, “Rescue is in your blood and you could no more stop doing it than you could stop breathing.” James is right –- rescue is in my blood -– which is why I have dedicated myself to doing this professionally, and why I trained for two years with Eldad Hagar, arguably the best street rescuer out there. I didn’t start out handling rescues on my own. I was a student, learning and practicing with professional guidance. Even so, I still managed to get hurt.
These days I hit the streets to rescue now more than ever, but I am much smarter about it. I use my rescue tools (including my gentle snare) and I protect my hands and body at all costs.
If I find myself in a dangerous situation, I call for backup — whether it is Eldad or another volunteer, I use the rescue community to help ensure the safety of the dog and myself. And no, I do not go for the “grab” anymore –even as a last resort. This means that I do not always save the dog, but I am alive and healthy for the next ten who need me.
My story is not one of recovery or triumph, but rather a cautionary tale. The rescue community is growing and everyday people are now taking action when they see a stray in need. If you are one of these Good Samaritans, I applaud you. But before you go out there and try to corner a dog half your size without proper tools or backup, or rescue a dog in the middle of a freeway, or attempt the risky moves you see us perform in rescue videos, please remember this story.
Remember that I got lucky and didn’t lose my hand or my life. And remember that to be a Good Samaritan that saves lives, first you must be alive.
Our latest rescue
The story of Theo, a terrified and abandoned poodle will break your heart then rebuild it tenfold!
As we drove to the vet, Theo sat in my lap, frozen like a statue. The smell from his urine-and-feces-soaked dreadlocks was so foul and thick that I couldn’t help but gag. How could any living creature live like this? How could he have survived for so long on his own in such a rough neighborhood? I held back my tears as I thought about all that Theo had been through in his short life. I could have gotten lost in these painful thoughts, but as rescuers, we must look forwards, not backwards, if we are going to give new light to the lives we safe.
Looking forward, Eldad and I knew that once Theo was medically cleared, he was going to need a special kind of foster to repair his broken spirit. With the help of The Mutt Scouts and three incredible Pit Bull friends, Theo’s spirit came alive. This inspiring tiny pup proves what is possible with a little hope and when two great rescue organizations come together to save a dog in need.
Read more from Annie and about Eldad Hagar:
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About the author: Annie Hart is an animal advocate and rescuer who has received international attention for her heartwarming rescue stories and viral rescue videos. She is currently working with several Los Angeles rescue groups and can be found sharing her daily rescue tales on Facebook.