LAND O'LAKES — On Thursday afternoon at Fire Station 23, Rick Chaboudy showed how oxygen masks specifically designed for pets can save their lives.
He's the executive director for the Suncoast Animal League, a Palm Harbor-based nonprofit rescue on a mission to outfit emergency personnel with the cone-shaped masks, which don't allow oxygen to escape. That happens when flat, human masks are used on animals rescued from fires. Suncoast has given more than 170 to fire stations in Pinellas.
Now, the organization is working on Pasco. It donated 10 to Pasco Fire Rescue on Thursday. Chaboudy is trying to get donations for at least 30 more of the masks, which cost $70 each and come in three sizes — to help animals from birds to Great Danes.
"Firefighters are 10 times more likely to encounter an animal in a fire than a human," Chaboudy said. "There's nothing like losing your pet in a fire. It's devastating."
With 30 more masks, every fire truck and ambulance in the county will have a set, said Rescue Chief Duncan Hitchcock. Before Thursday's donation, the county had about a half dozen masks for the past year. Hitchcock said they have been used at least twice at house fires where pets suffered smoke inhalation.
"When firefighters go into a house, we automatically look for victims — whether they are pets or people," Hitchcock said.
Fire Rescue paramedic and driver Shari Surdovel has used the masks on pets rescued from fires.
"They fit much better," said Surdovel, who works at Station 26 in Wesley Chapel. When trying to use human masks in the past, "we were adapting something not made for their faces."
She said if a house is on fire, there is usually an 80 percent chance a pet is trapped inside. Surdovel has experienced the loss of a pet not surviving a fire and the thrill of saving one. She said firefighters take rescuing pets "very seriously."
"Pets are part of people's family," she said.
A volunteer from Suncoast brought a dog named Toby and a cat named Link to demonstrate the masks. Both are rescues and available for adoption. Chaboudy cradled Link in his arms. Normally, an American bulldog named Wrigley would be with him at an event like this.
"If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have started this mission," Chaboudy said.
In 2005, Wrigley and his owner lived in a trailer in Clearwater. The man decided to kill himself and in his suicide note, he said he wanted to take his best friend, Wrigley, with him, Chaboudy said. He fed the 85-pound dog a last meal of meat and gravy, then he attached a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the trailer. The carbon monoxide killed the man —but not Wrigley.
Chaboudy saw a firefighter take Wrigley's limp body out of the house. Emergency workers used a human mask on the dog, but the oxygen leaked out the sides. Chaboudy said they put Wrigley in the back seat of his car and a paramedic did CPR all the way to an emergency vet.
Wrigley was there for days and the doctor told Chaboudy the dog's brain was "soup." He said he couldn't walk, hear or see and that he never would. Chaboudy called the mother of the man who killed himself to tell her the bad news, and then he went to hug Wrigley before he was euthanized. But when he went to the cage and said the dog's name, Wrigley's tail wagged and he struggled to his feet. Chaboudy took Wrigley outside and a butterfly flew past the dog's nose. He saw it. Wrigley could see.
He made a full recovery and became Suncoast's mascot for pet-sized resuscitation masks, going to events and council meetings throughout Tampa Bay.
Early this year, Wrigley was diagnosed with bone cancer. His front right leg was amputated. In the spring, the cancer came back. He died at the end of April. Chaboudy said everyone at the organization grieved.
"Maybe this was his higher calling," Chaboudy said at the event. "Maybe this was his purpose."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.