In our everyday world of work, play and just plain living there is a sense of normalcy and routine, but sometimes things happen and the heroes amongst us leap forward, take charge and make our world a better place.
Dictionary.com defines, in part, a hero as "a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child." We're not talking about Superman here, but instead the average person and emergency workers who live in your community or mine.
This summer the Blue Rhino plant in Tavares, Florida exploded. Imagine the Fourth of July on steroids. People were understandably unnerved by the sound of exploding propane tanks, but so were the animals who lived in the area that needed to be evacuated too. As a quick point of reference, please make sure to include your four-legged members of the family in any disaster/emergency planning.
In Lauren Ritchie's Orlando Sentinel column she talked about the animals, including three horses, that had to be evacuated by their human family from a dead end road. "This is not a particularly apt escape route when one is trying to rescue horses — large creatures with enormous ears and terrific hearing but delicate nervous systems. They resisted being led in the direction of the plant."
Managing to evacuate cats, dogs and the three horses required a hero's sense of action, but also the ability to strategize based on the circumstances. When police wouldn't allow a return towards the plant for the third horse (the other two went out in a two-horse trailer) an alternate strategy was used. Certainly most people or animals wouldn't want to travel in the direction of an explosive landscape so in this case ". . . a 27-year-old white Arabian called Gracie . . . walked more than a mile of woods and fields in the dark . . . deafening explosions lighting up the night sky behind them . . . People out watching the explosions just stared as they saw Kim come onto the road, leading a clearly terrified horse." Heroes are people who lead animals to safety - - that's what they do.
Heroes are firefighters who use an oxygen mask to resuscitate a dog after a mobile-home fire; as featured in an Orlando Sentinel photo on August 11th. Heroes are vacationers who ". . . committed to daily beach cleanups. We cleared the shoreline of plastic and other debris that a turtle or other animal might mistakenly eat. In all, we collected 61 pounds of trash, making our traditional beach vacation an eco-adventure." Heroes are the staffs of local animal services and animal organizations who responded with great efforts to a large animal-hoarding case as ". . . eyes were filled with tears after such an exhausting and emotional day . . . All I could think of was that I had just spent eight hours with the true heroes in our community . . . They are special people who have dedicated their lives to rescuing and caring for animals, and for that we should be thankful."
People don't have to do the spectacular to be heroes. Each day as you walk your dog on a leash to prevent a possible rush to the road where a car could hit your four-legged friend; when you schedule an annual visit (or as needed) with your veterinarian to make sure your four-legged friend is wholesome and fit; when you report suspected animal cruelty or neglect. These, as well as others, are the actions of a hero for animals in your day-to-day life. It's all about protecting animals and being responsible for their health and well-being.
Of course sometimes the very people we look upon as heroes can also be seen letting us down, and more importantly, the animals in their care. Last month, ". . . Hershey was accidentally euthanized by Orange County Animal Services (OCAS) even though a family wanted to adopt the 2-year-old pit bull."
Amongst the 23,000 animals OCAS "welcomes" to their shelter each year, Hershey had a chance to be adopted into another home. While some may consider routine each adoption local government directs, others might consider them heroes for saving these animal lives. Heroes, at least, until something in the system goes wrong.
According to an animal services statement, "Unfortunately, our system of checks and balances failed and the dog was euthanized in error." So much for the steel in superman's cape. Said Dil Luther, Division Manager of OCAS, "We are terribly sorry for this mistake, and our hearts go out to the adopting family. An occurrence such as this is extremely rare. However, it happened and it's an error we do not take lightly. We have already reinforced our procedures to ensure this does not happen again."
Unfortunately too, this tragedy has opened up an array of allegations against OCAS that has residents venting. Without the public on your side it makes it very difficult to maintain credibility as a local government agency; especially one dealing with such vulnerable subject matter each and every day. For the most part, there are no "hot" button issues that touch the public more than animals and children.
Following the accidental euthanizing of Hershey, WKMG Local 6 reported a small dog brought in as a stray with matted and tangled fur had the dog's eyelids cut off during grooming. "The image shows the dog with its eyes bulging out of its sockets. It was turned over to an animal rescue group two days after the incident in the same condition."
Remember OCAS and other animal services agencies in both large and small metropolitan markets receive thousands of animals each year into their shelters with many finding forever homes and receiving love and attention often for the first time in their lives. Putting the whole kill versus non-kill shelter issue aside as a discussion for another day, it is easy to find incidents here and there where animal services and their staffs become almost anti-heroes in their actions and attitudes as part of an impossible system filled with too much red tape, lack of resources and overwhelming numbers to battle on the animals behalf.
Several animal activists are calling ". . . for new leadership and reforms" at OCAS, but Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and Commissioner Fred Brummer responded ". . . that animal abuse and irresponsibility among the public also are to blame for problems with animal control in general." However, the mayor ". . . also pledged to look into all allegations raised by residents."
Comments on the OCAS reports are mixed with people finding the OCAS operation incompetent while others share the thoughts of Mayor Jacobs, as a few examples (in part) relate:
"This is just yet another example of incompetency in how OCAS is run ."
" Mayor Jacobs is correct - the main problem is NOT with this shelter or any other - the problem is the irresponsibility of many pet owners - and the over burdened animal shelters trying to keep up with the consequences of that irresponsibility."
". . . Everyone at this shelter should be held accountable, esp. the groomer, esp, the director, the officials of this county/state. This is pure T Animal Abuse at a shelter, which happening so much lately OR people are finally standing up for the animals & letting it be known".
". . . I always thought people that worked with animals did it because they loved them and wanted to make a difference. I guess I was wrong. Shame on you OC Animal Services. I think it's in the best interest of all involved to fire the staff and rebuild from the ground up. We also need to focus on outreach and education. If people weren't ignorant and fixed their animals in the first place we wouldn't be in this situation. Having a pet is a lifetime commitment and people need to start taking responsibility. So sad!"
" If people wouldn't abuse animals at home and turn them loose on the streets...these county workers wouldn't have many animals to deal with in the first place. Whether these animal control workers are incompetent or not it isn't their fault that thousands of morons abuse their pets and just dump them when they cant care for them anymore. Lets put the blame where it really belongs...on the idiots who think owning a pet is cute and not a serious responsibility."
"I try hard to remind people that the amount of animals put down in such a short time is due to the volume and costs incurred of having so many animals that are brought in due to neglect/abuse, being left behind, or dropped off because they are no longer convenient . . . The accountability doesn't stop with one action, it is each individual that is responsible for how they act whether it is one, two, or three hundred."
Yes, emotions run high when we're talking about animals and those emotions will run the gamut from high to low. Let's not forget that shelters deal everyday with the huge responsibility for those animals in their care who look to them for hope and survival. Obviously, each negative incident perpetuated by a government agency should be thoroughly reviewed and steps taken for correction and necessary change.
Debbie Turner, a member of the advisory panel that oversees OCAS is now recommending major changes at the agency. After these recent incidents, Turner and other members of her advisory panel will demand change before the Orange County Board of Commissioners. Turner told Local 6, "I believe the management has become desensitized to the amount of pain and suffering going on. I think they handle so many animals they're overwhelmed, and they're doing the best they can."
However, it cannot be emphasized enough what these animals mean to most of the people who care for them. In the words of a longtime foster volunteer for OCAS, ". . . I was deeply saddened to learn about the accidental euthanization of Hershey . . . While this was a tragic situation — and my heart grieves for both Hershey and the family who was planning to give him a forever home – I must speak up for the compassion and dedication that I have observed by the OCAS workers for the animals in their care. It is easy to forget that every day thousands of unwanted pets are dumped at shelters already struggling under budget cuts. That's not to say that this heartbreaking accident with Hershey doesn't require a close re-examination of the shelter's euthanization processes. I just hope people remember that OCAS has also saved the lives of countless dogs and cats — unwanted animals that the rest of the world had already turned away from."
Recognize that mistakes, sometimes tragic ones, will be made in this type of stressful environment where the system often feeds on itself without providing the true support needed to be the heroes we want our shelters to be. Yes, changes may need to be made but the system shouldn't hide behind its so-called indifference until tragedy begs for a public response. Provide the support now and maybe you can begin to pull on superman's cape once again.
Finally, readers of this column know we have always been critical of SeaWorld. To be fair we must admit even they have heroes, but unfortunately more corporate villains we think. Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell writes, "SeaWorld does some seriously good deeds." However, at the same time he clearly recognizes the true reality of what SeaWorld is. "But here's the thing: SeaWorld does not exist to serve animals or protect the environment. It exists to make money. Period."
Maxwell describes the images in the new documentary "Blackfish" as ". . . downright harrowing. One trainer is crushed between two killer whales. Another's arm is bitten, fractured to the point it's visibly disfigured. Yet another is nearly drowned. Pent-up whales bloody each other. One dies. And you see the final moments of one trainer's life before a whale ended it." This does not sound like the moments in which heroes are made, but instead corporate greed no matter the cost.
To its credit, SeaWorld ". . . is involved in major charitable endeavors for this community. It has rescue programs that save animal lives. It employs many great people and some genuine conservationists. And it does a good job of weaving messages of conservation and environmentalism through its parks, opening the eyes of many visitors who wouldn't otherwise hear such messages."
That notwithstanding, Maxwell recognizes a ". . . more compelling take-away involves the grisly effects of captivity on the whales – the injuries, the sickness, the death, and even the bloody battles between animals forced to live together in small spaces. . . . I think society is evolving to a point where confining whales in small spaces is generally frowned upon." Does anyone really believe that Shamu likes being a human controlled show act instead of living a life of freedom in the open seas? Only SeaWorld's corporate villains could believe that?
The world has many heroes and those who do heroic deeds on behalf of animals are to be commended. There is no greater responsibility than keeping the animals we love happy and safe, but always know for some people the role of hero is in a direct path to collide with others who view animals with indifference, a sense of harm, or as an object to reach financial success.
Our four-legged friends need their heroes and we can only hope that in the struggle of life these heroes prevail . . .