TAMPA — Cujo and Luna Loca first saw them Sunday morning in the back of Pine Lake Garden Villas in Carrollwood — a mama duck and 11 ducklings.
The dogs, lovers of waterfowl, strained against leashes as owner Belen Artidello held back the miniature pinschers. The ducks weren't bothered. They waddled along. But then the ducklings tried to cross a metal grate covering a storm drain.
Artidello watched in horror as eight of the ducklings fell out of sight between the grate's slats as if a trap door had opened. She looked down the 12-foot-deep drain. The ducklings were in a pickle. Someone called 911.
That call unleashed what some neighbors were soon referring to as the "Great Duck Rescue." It would attract a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy, five members of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, a gaggle of neighbors, a nervous condo association president and a guy from Public Works on his first duck call in a 14-year career.
"This was worse than rescuing a cat from a tree," Artidello said. "And crazier, too."
After the fall, the mama duck reacted frantically, circling the drain as the ducklings' chirps rose from the drain amid a trickle of water. Artidello tried to lift the grate. It didn't budge.
The mama duck retreated to a nearby pond as rescuers arrived.
It was quickly clear this was a rescue in need of heavy equipment. A Hillsborough Public Works Department truck arrived. Donoban Brown got out for his first duck rescue.
He used a big mechanical arm, operated from the back of the truck, and with a giant claw pulled out the grate and concrete surrounding it. Fire Rescue moved in with a ladder.
The ducklings did what anybody would when confronted with a giant claw — they fled into a small drain pipe in the side of a wall at the bottom of the sewer, out of reach.
A resident ran up with a bag of bread. Fire Rescue personnel dropped crumbs into the drain. The ducklings emerged from the pipe to feast.
A stuffed garbage bag was dropped to block the pipe. The ducklings squeezed by it, hidden again.
Rescue crews dropped more bread. They waited 10 minutes, then 20. The ducklings hid still.
Villas resident Debbie Magers had an idea. She arrived with a duckling in hand, one of the three that hadn't fallen.
It chirped loudly.
The other ducklings emerged to try to investigate. A firefighter's jacket was dropped down the drain to block their exit back into the pipe.
Then Capt. Sean Duncan climbed down a ladder. One by one, he plucked the ducklings, putting them in a cat carrier.
The uninjured ducklings were released in a pond to be reunited with mom. They swam off together.
Bernadette Storck, Villas president, watched it all, getting nervous only when a TV cameraman joked that rescuers might use dynamite to free the ducklings.
Storck eyed the grate, put back into place over the drain when it was over, and worried they all might all be back in a day or two for another rescue.
"I don't know," she said, "if ducks are smart enough to learn from their mistakes."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]