The skinny-necked bird was flailing in the middle of the pond at Largo Golf Course. For a couple of hours, it was diving and popping to the surface, trying to free itself from a rope caught in its serrated bill. Golfers worried it was going to die. They asked a guy in the pro shop to call the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. He left a message, but didn't hear back. City Manager Mac Craig, who was at the course to play golf, "saw no sense letting the bird drown" so he called Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace and asked if it this was the type of thing that the department handles. Yes, Wallace said, if the department wasn't handling something more pressing.
Around 6:15 p.m. on Aug. 13, a Largo fire engine with two firefighters arrived on the scene, just around the time bird rescuer Greg Slutzky showed up. Slutzky waded into the neck-deep water and freed the blackish bird called an anhinga.
Local fire chiefs say it's not unusual for the public to call on their departments to rescue animals in distress.
Folks have historically relied on firefighters to rescue cats caught in trees, Wallace said. And personally, Wallace has responded to animal calls since he began his firefighting career more than 25 years ago.
His first couple of years as a Madeira Beach firefighter, he helped rescue a cat that had fallen behind a refrigerator and a dog stranded on a piece of wood in the Intracoastal Waterway.
In May, Largo Fire Rescue helped save ducks stuck in a sewer near Walsingham and Indian Rocks roads. And last month, the department tried to save a pit bull stung by bees at Whispering Pines Mobile Home Park.
"Our guys went into a swarm of a thousand bees and took that dog to a dog hospital and I'm not ashamed of that," Wallace said.
Palm Harbor fire Chief Jim Angle said his department has also traditionally responded to calls to rescue animals in peril. In 2004, the department rescued a kitten stuck deep in the tube of an abandoned bank drive-through. And recently, Palm Harbor firefighters helped free a duck or a goose stuck in a chimney, he said.
"As long as our unit stays in service, and guys can do what they can without hurting themselves, we try to do what we can to help people out," Angle said.
The fire department's mission is to protect people and improve their quality of life, Wallace said, and animals play a major role in residents' quality of life. He insists that such calls do not detract from responses to real life emergencies since units remain available for high priority human emergencies.
"If a fire were to be reported or an advanced life support call for cardiac arrest, these guys are still in the area," Wallace said. "They would have left the dog, the bird or the cat and they would have gone to take care of the higher priority incident in their district."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-4155.