Harley, a year-old beagle, had been howling and crying for hours as he lay trapped in high cattails in a muddy swamp in Stony Creek.
Then he fell silent, exhausted. Brown and white with floppy ears, he blended right into the high spiked cattails.
He wasn’t easy to spot until a fire department drone flying, whirring above him woke him up. It saved his life.
Harley lives with his family on Bowhay Road. Somehow he got loose mid-Sunday afternoon. He had no collar and no identification. He simply ran free and vanished down the road into a large, deep swamp, the kind that causes humans to sink within the muck. Before long he became trapped in the cattails. The water was frigid.
Harley’s family called the animal shelter, saying he was lost and asking them to call if someone found him. Shelter officials heard nothing more until the next day when they received a call from the Stony Creek fire department saying they had a call about a dog yowling and requesting their help.
The time was about 11:30 a.m. Monday. Three firefighters from the Stony Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Company 5, quickly got to the site.
Firefighter Mike McNamara took the lead. (Look closely in the photo to find him.) “He put on galoshes and jumped into the marsh and was trying to figure out how to get through the thick cattails,” Laura Burban, the director of the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, told the Eagle. Cattails are wetland plants whose leaves and branches look like blades and can reach between three and ten feet high.
The water was freezing. Burban became concerned when McNamara emerged at one point soaking wet. “When it is cold like that you don’t know how quickly your body temperature is going to go down,” she said.
“We decided it was best to get into wetsuits. I told the guys I was the smallest one and I said I could probably snake thru the cattails more easily than they can. They said that sounded like a plan.”
Burban feared Harley was dead. The neighbor who heard the puppy cries for hours and hours told her he had heard nothing for more than two hours.
“I said, ‘Wendy, this isn’t good,’” she recalled in describing her conversation with Wendy Joyce, her lead animal control officer. “This puppy has now been outside for an entire night. in the cold. I think the puppy went missing about 3 p.m. the day before [Sunday[, and we are now nearing noon Monday. So it is almost 24 hours and my feeling was since he hadn’t been heard crying he wasn’t with us anymore. Nobody heard him at all as we were going thru the cattails. We were calling and screaming. Silence is all we heard.”
Drone Arrives Burban detailed what happened next:
“We kind of branched out and each of us took a section for us to go through. Mike started to backtrack and go through these cattails, and then marsh land and then bushes and then swampy trees. “It was hard to walk through all of it because the guys who were bigger kept sinking.”
Chief Ahern said the fire department now has its own Phantom Vision drone, one donated to the department. At the Stony Creek Quarry fire, Peter Sachs, a volunteer with the fire department, flew his own privately-owned drone, also a Phantom Vision, over the quarry.
Burban said: “You could see they were positioning the drone in different areas. It was so difficult for us to see the puppy because the puppy colors blended in perfectly with the landscape of the swamp.
“My theory is that the puppy probably found a dry spot within those cattails because he wasn’t soaked when we found him. He had found a dry refuge. He was exhausted from screaming all night long and curled up and decided somehow to sleep. Between the commotion of us moving back and forth between the cattails and this weird noise above its head from the drone, I think he probably got up and said what the heck is going on and started to move.”
The unintended consequence of the drone’s sounds had roused the puppy so that he could be seen.
All of a sudden, McNamara shouted to Burban: “I think I see him.”
“I am trying not to yell because there were people around and I didn’t want to say anything because god forbid the puppy was dead. I tried to get closer,” she said.
“I said, ‘Mike, is he alive?’ And he said, ‘I think so.’ We couldn’t see his face but we could see he was moving.
“Mike said, ‘He’s alive, he’s alive; I can’t see his face but he’s alive.’”
But seeing movement didn’t mean the pair would be able to grab him.
Burban said that being enmeshed in the cattails is “like being in a jungle; you can hear but you can’t see. and I said to Mike, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘You need to backtrack from where you are and go to the outskirts of the cattails, and I am going to try to push him out towards you where you can pick him up.’
“So we did that . I get over to the area where Mike is, and he doesn’t have a hold of the puppy, but he can see the puppy. So he is trying to walk toward the puppy to make the puppy come towards me. And he does that. The puppy sees me, and he sees Mike. And what does the puppy do? He makes a big U-turn and goes back into the cattails.”
McNamara and Burban stayed calm. About ten minutes went by. They kept searching. “Then Mike makes a turn and so do I and then Mike says: ‘I see him, I see him.’”
Finally Mike shouted: “The victim is in custody!” He had completed the rescue.
But then, Burban said, McNamara, who was holding Harley, began to sink into the mud. “A deputy chief who had arrived at the scene started sinking as well. So I went back in and took the puppy from the deputy chief.” The two firefighters struggled with the marsh but soon got out.
“We then all walked out with the puppy. He was freezing and going into hypothermia. So Kara, who works for me took the puppy and put it in her coat.” She was referring to Kara Rowell, her program coordinator and the woman holding Harley in the top photo.
“Kara and Wendy had our truck running because they heard the puppy was alive. So they grabbed the puppy and ran and jumped into the truck and took him right to the Branford Veterinary hospital.”
Burban had barely seen Harley. She needed to see him, she said. So she went to the hospital.
“The vet gave Harley some fluids and put him in a warming center. Soon you could see he was getting better. He is as cute as they come. We are just thrilled that he ended up being alive. By the end of the day his owners were able to go to pick him up.”
“I honestly believe in my heart if McNamara and those firefighters didn’t take the chance and be willing to put themselves at risk the puppy wouldn’t be alive. I honestly don’t believe he would have made it.
“It was because of them that we even had the ability to get out there, to get through the marsh.”