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Rescuers leave on mission of hope

In the past five years, the volunteers of Dunedin-based K-9 Search and Rescue Teams of Florida have used their specially trained dogs to help solve crimes, recover drowning victims and find lost graves.

Friday, several team members joined a larger contingent of cadaver dogs and search and rescue specialists from South Florida and Georgia on a 10-day trip to Ecuador. Their goal is to find a Wisconsin college student who has been missing for more than three months.

For the dogs and their handlers, this may be their most challenging mission.

"I don't think it gets any more high profile than this," said Sharon Scavuzzo, the founder and director of operations for the nonprofit K-9 Search and Rescue. "It sends home the fact that it could happen to anyone at any time. When you hear it happening to a college student who was down there doing some good, it just breaks your heart."

In addition to K-9 Search and Rescue's personnel, the mission includes two Pasco County volunteers trained in search and rescue efforts. One is Hudson anesthetist Ron Wegner. He is on a U.S. Public Health Service disaster team, though he is not going to Ecuador in his government role. The other is Marshia Hall, a Temple Terrace firefighter who lives in Dade City.

"This is a conglomeration of many teams," said Hall, who has trained with the K-9 team members. "This is the first time we've ever all worked together, so this is really cool."

They all want to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of 21-year-old David Byrd-Felker, who might have vanished while exploring a 360,000-acre national park called Podocarpus in the

southern tip of Ecuador. The deadly hazards of the mountainous Amazon forest include steep terrain, poisonous snakes and wild animals.

Finding David would finally give his family some peace.

"If you're a mother in this situation, you sure do hold out hope that he is still alive," said his mother, Maggie Felker, 51, of Wisconsin. "But I don't fool myself. I know I may never find out."

A mystery _ and a clue

Sometimes, when she thinks about her son's disappearance while studying abroad in Ecuador, Maggie Felker finds herself wishing that he was abducted and is being held against his will. At least that scenario would mean he was still alive somewhere.

But she knows the more likely explanation is that something happened to David while he was hiking the vast national forest. At least, that's where the few clues seem to lead.

"It's very difficult to know what to hope for," Felker said. "There would be some advantage in finding David's remains and finding closure. But I can't say that's what I hope for."

An experienced traveler who enjoyed Shakespeare and could speak Spanish, Hungarian and German, David went to Ecuador in February to spend a semester studying in Quito, the country's capital. While there, he taught street children how to read.

"More and more, he was getting into social justice issues and looking at how to equalize the opportunities in the world and realizing how much he had been given and the advantages he had in life," Felker said. "He really wanted to teach kids to think and to think well. That was very important to him. He realized that while he had a chance to do Shakespeare when he was 13, he knew there were some kids who never had a chance to read."

David, who had planned to join the Peace Corps when he graduated from college, delayed his return home to explore the country. He was supposed to fly home in August, but he never got on the plane.

The family hired a detective to find some answers, and Felker traveled to Ecuador for a month to join the search. She appeared in various local television and radio stations and went to small towns showing David's picture, hoping to find someone who had seen him.

The trail led to a hotel in a small town called Zamora, which is about 15 hours south of Quito and lies on the border of the national park.

There, she found a clue.

Local police had the belongings of an American matching David's description who had disappeared in July while staying at the hotel. When police brought out the small duffel bag containing the items, she recognized the bag. It was David's.

His personal items _ clothes, deodorant, a toothbrush _ were inside. So was David's journal detailing his trip.

His writings mentioned going to the national park. In addition to that, a hotel worker recalled seeing the young American guest leave one day with his hotel keys and possibly maps of the forest. That was the last time anyone saw David.

"My son is a really, really wonderful person," Felker said. "I feel it is truly a loss to the world if he has not survived."

"The final exam'

When the group of cadaver dogs and search-and-rescue specialists arrives in Ecuador, it will set up a base camp and gather as many maps as possible of the national park. Then the searchers will divide the area into sectors that they will search in small groups.

The search groups will consist of a dog, a handler and one or two support personnel to handle navigation, communications and looking after the animals' veterinary needs, Scavuzzo said. Depending on the area being searched, some groups may stay out as long as 10 to 12 hours at a time.

They will face a daunting task.

"We laugh down here that the biggest thing you have to worry about (in Florida) are gators and snakes," Scavuzzo said. "Down there, you have pumas and monkeys that are not exactly friendly. Overall, it's just a hostile environment."

The group and its dogs may have to rappel down steep mountainsides. They'll have to watch out for venomous snakes, mosquitoes and anacondas. The team has had to get shots to protect against typhoid, yellow fever and hepatitis.

Even something as innocent as a puddle of water can be dangerous for the dogs, who can get sick from bacteria in the water.

"Our lives are on the line down there," Scavuzzo said.

There's also no telling how the dogs will react to the change in environment. Altitudes within the national park range from 3,300 feet to 11,880 feet.

So why go on this mission?

"We just want to do what we can to help bring him home and bring some closure," said Leslie Patterson, a member of K-9 Search and Rescue who is going on the trip. "The best thing in the world is to be able to find him alive out there, able to live in the rain forest. We all know that the probability he is alive is really slim, but in any event, we can provide her with some answers."

Ron Wegner of Hudson is making the trip to provide medical support to the rescue team members and dogs.

Wegner, 53, is commander of a U.S. Public Health Service disaster team that responds to cities when local emergency services are overwhelmed. He helped out at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11 and worked the opening ceremonies for last winter's Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

But Wegner will be in Ecuador strictly as a citizen volunteer ready to assist if the searchers or dogs are injured in the jungle. His main concern is snake bites.

"We really have to remain as a team, or we're going to get into a dangerous situation," he said.

In addition to battery-powered medical equipment and a satellite phone, Wegner brought antivenin and veterinary supplies.

But nature may not be the only hostile force the team encounters. Wegner said the team would have an armed guard escort them from Quito to their base in Zamora. The trip has to be made during the day because the risk of being robbed on the road is too great. Drug traffickers and rebel militia also present a threat.

"This is not going to be deer hunting in Wisconsin," Wegner said.

Wegner said he had spent about $2,000 on personal goods, such as special clothing for the jungle. His shots cost $150, and he's losing hundred of dollars a day because he's not working. In all, Wegner said, he'll lose close to $5,000 in the effort, and that's true for all the team members.

"All of these people are sacrificing a great deal of time, effort and money," he said.

Hall of Dade City will provide support along with her black Labrador, Shade, a tracking dog certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"If somebody doesn't come back, then my job kicks in," Hall said.

Wegner and Hall, who work together on the federal disaster team, said an operation like this went well beyond their realm of experience, but a sense of adventure and purpose help quell their fears.

"My only reservation is over our country's turmoil," she said. "Otherwise I'm extremely comfortable with the whole thing."

Wegner said that after 12 years of working in rescue efforts, he's looking forward to his "graduation day."

"I've been doing this for a long time, and this is the final exam of search and rescue. I really want to see how this comes together," he said. "This is how you give back to society."

Hoping for a miracle

In all, nine dogs and 16 search and rescue specialists are going on the trip. The Dunedin group is taking two of its top dogs: a veteran 6-year-old German shepherd named Kato, which has gone on about 40 searches this year alone, and a promising rookie named Rudy, 1{-year-old golden retriever going on its first big mission.

Rudy is a wiry 55-pound dog who has been training since he was 3 months old, Scavuzzo said. "He is always go, go, go. He's like the Energizer bunny."

Kato is a friendly hulk of a dog, weighing more than 100 pounds, and has gone on more than 100 searches. "He's just solid muscle," Scavuzzo said.

Though the trip is far from a vacation, the pair of dogs will probably have a blast.

"I think that they are going to love it," Patterson said. "New smells. New things to get acclimated to. Basically, they love their work."

Even the humans can't hide their excitement.

"We obviously have our trepidations, but for the most part, we are pretty hyped about it," Scavuzzo said. "Most search teams don't have the opportunity to go overseas to search for somebody."

Scavuzzo's group trains weekly for several hours a night behind a church in Dunedin, rehearsing search and rescue situations. One practice involves burying a rag soaked in a chemical that, for dogs, simulates the odor of human remains. The dogs have to find the rag.

"It's a great opportunity to put our skills to something that will help a family that desperately needs our help," Scavuzzo said.

The trip is expected to cost about $60,000 for the plane tickets, hotel, food and an allowance for each searcher to cover additional expenses such as medicine and equipment. The family will pay most of the cost, using money raised from a fund created to help them. The group will have to pay any costs not covered out of their own pockets.

"I'm extremely grateful to this remarkable group of people who are willing to give up 10 days of their lives to help me," Felker said. "That's very generous of them. That's very, very wonderful because without them, I wouldn't be able to do this."

David grew up in Madison, Wis., and attended Beloit College. He started traveling when he was 16, when he went to Hungary as an exchange student. He also has traveled to Ghana.

"He just liked getting to know different kinds of people," Felker said. "He was not touristy. He really liked getting to know ordinary people . . . and how the world sees us as Americans."

Felker knows there is probably only a slim chance that her son is alive after being missing for more than three months. Still, as a nurse who works with newborn babies, she has seen miracles touch the lives of families whose children were not expected to survive.

"I've seen miracles happen with other children beating the odds," Felker said. "It only takes having seen one miracle or heard about one miracle to give any parent the right to hope. I'm no different. So I do hope."

For information

For information on K-9 Search and Rescue Teams of Florida, check www.ksar.org or call (727) 409-0048. Contributions to help pay for the search for David Byrd-Felker can be sent to the Help Find David Fund. Checks should be made payable to Maggie Felker and sent to: Help Find David Fund, c/o the University of Wisconsin Credit Union, P.O. Box 44963, Madison, WI 53744-4963.

Sharon Scavuzzo, the founder and director of operations for the K-9 Search and Rescue, based in Dunedin, takes veteran search dog Kato on a drill at Stetson University College of Law in 1998.

Above, from left, Maggie Felker, her husband, Michael Byrd, son, David Byrd Felker, and daughter, Rachel Byrd-Felker, share a family photo. Left, David Byrd-Felker, 21, promotes reading programs for street children while in Quito, Ecuador, a few weeks before his disappearance. He was last seen by a hotel worker on the day he is thought to have gone to explore a 360,000-acre park.

Marshia Hall, a Temple Terrace firefighter who lives in Dade City, and Shade, a tracking dog certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Both will be on the Ecuador trip.

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