Life in the country isn’t always peaceful — animal emergencies happen. Horses, cows, bulls and other livestock get stuck in fences, mud, snow, ditches; fall through ice into ponds or streams; wander into swimming pools…

Little Fork Volunteer Fire and Rescue, trained in Technical Large Animal Rescue, responded to their most unusual animal emergency in October 2016 in Botetourt County, Virginia. Confined in the open barn area because of excessive rainfall that flooded pastures and stalls, 16-year-old gelding Phoenix was desperate to escape badgering by the elderly but totally alpha-diva ex-rodeo mare. He took flight up a steep wooden stairway to the second-floor hayloft.

Phoenix is safe on terra firma and in good hands..
Phoenix is safe on terra firma and in good hands..

When the horse’s predicament was discovered, his owner and her family tried to persuade him to walk down the stairs. Fortunately, Phoenix refused to cooperate. He felt safer tied to a post with water and plenty of hay. It was after midnight; in desperation, Carol Witt Pugh used Facebook to ask for help. Before going to the barn around dawn, she checked her post and saw a friend had provided the number for Little Fork in Culpeper County — the only volunteer company in the Commonwealth of Virginia specializing in technical rescues of equids and bovines.

Chief Doug Monaco responded to Witt Pugh’s call and within minutes a team was en route. It’s quite a tale (http://littleforkvfrc.org/press). The carefully planned rescue was successful: Phoenix was sedated, then strapped to a heavy-duty glide board that was lowered slowly and carefully down the steep stairs with plenty of people-power on both ends of the ropes. A breathing crisis triggered by the horse’s COPD as the sedative wore off prompted an emergency tracheotomy by attending vet, Dr. Tarah Salatino of Blackwater Veterinary Services, but Phoenix recovered completely and continues to do great. His owner sends regular updates about “hayloft horse” to his rescuers.

While waiting three hours with her horse for Little Fork, Pugh Witt didn’t anticipate a happy outcome. “To be honest, I couldn’t see how they were going to get him down those stairs,” she said. “I groomed Phoenix and tried to keep him calm, but I really thought I was just telling him goodbye. All I can say is call – there’s nothing that Little Fork can’t do!”

Little Fork focuses on safety, safety and more safety for all involved — animal and rescue personnel. Teamwork is key. They prepare a rescue plan covering as many contingencies as possible. “These operations can be long and tiring, so we assign a Safety Officer on every incident,” Monaco said. ”Being Safety Officer can be challenging as they have the authority to stop the operation until the situation is made safe. When trapped or frightened, animals revert to survival instinct behavior and they’re quick to react in flight or fight mode.”

Little Fork answers every call fortified with up-to-date training and continuing education in Fire, Rescue, and TLAR. They’re experienced, compassionate, dedicated and determined to do their best. Their volunteer work is a labor of love.

“Chief Monaco showed up with two team members — by the time of the actual rescue there were close to 30 people in my hayloft,” said Witt Pugh. “Chief Monaco coordinated with all the local fire and rescue, animal control, and the veterinarian. My nephew, Josh Golla, is a Botetourt County Deputy and my neighbor, so he was in the loft with me that morning and was instrumental in helping Chief Monaco make the calls and get all the local help he needed. Once all the teams were on site, Chief Monaco supervised everything and made assignments as necessary. Everyone worked together — it was amazing!”

Situated in Rixeyville near the heart of Virginia’s horse country, Little Fork fielded large animal calls and soon realized the bigger the animal, the more complex the emergency rescue. In 2011, Monaco and ten Little Fork volunteer firefighters and/or EMTs trained as Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue technicians at the M.A.R.E. Center in Middleburg. Today, 32 of Little Fork’s 65 volunteers have TLAER™ training.   

“We are a 100 percent all-volunteer Fire & Rescue Squad,” Monaco said. “In October, Delegate Webert presented us with our fifth consecutive plaque for answering 100 percent of all emergency calls. We have already started our sixth year working on another 100 percent response rate. We have a great group of people, but I think we are a bit of an oddity.”

Little Fork responds to more than 550 calls per year. In 2017, they saved several lives and properties with a combined value of 2.275-million dollars. Local fire insurance rates were lowered by more than 2.1 million dollars. Little Fork went out on 28 TLAR rescues. Before the team deploys for an animal emergency, they make certain enough volunteers are on hand to handle other emergency calls.

Little Fork’s volunteers aren’t an oddity. They’re a shining example of what community service really means. Three types of membership (active, supportive, junior 16-18) are rewarding and essential. You have to be a certified firefighter and/or EMT to train in TLAER™. Little Fork pays for their volunteers’ training.   

Fire Lieut. Melissa Mainville joined Little Fork in 2011, totally hooked after a paramedic friend invited her to ride-along. “It’s one of the best experiences you can have,” said Mainville. “The first few months will be constant non-stop training for EMT or firefighting. Both require extensive studying. Once you get your certification in either, you most likely will sign up for more training. It becomes part of your life.”

Mainville took EMT-basic, Firefighter I, and joined the second Little Fork group for TLAER™ training. Promoted to Fire Lieutenant in 2015, she averages 300 emergency calls a year while working full-time as a speech pathologist at Fauquier Hospital. When she can, she rides to hounds with Warrenton.

“Little Fork is unique. People are here because they want to donate to the community and make things better,” Mainville said. “We work with other fire & rescues, fighting fires, helping to control and keep fires from spreading. Technical Large Animal Rescue is our niche. If someone’s stuck in a silo, we call Prince William, because that’s their niche. Fredericksburg is trained to go down a well. There’s a lot of reciprocity and communication.”

It’s all about teamwork. Across the U.S, many 3-5 person teams are trained in Large Animal Rescue but might lack the specialized equipment. Several well-known teams with both the training and the equipment include Hagyard Equine in Kentucky, Cherokee County and the City of Milton in Georgia, and Virginia’s Little Fork.

“We have been fund-raising for a new facility because we outgrew this one years ago,” Monaco said. “We have a great design with six bays and an upstairs complete with bunk beds, showers, kitchen and day room. We have an army of 25 to 30 volunteers on site for rescue calls. At night they have to camp out and sleep among the emergency vehicles. We really need a bigger, better facility to house our volunteers. So far we have raised $450,000, but we need $1-million to start construction. We have faith that people will help us achieve this goal.”

Fundraisers include Little Fork’s 5th annual Crown Royal Trail ride at Three Oaks Farm in Rixeyville May 19 (rain date: May 20) with BBQ lunch included in the $55 non-refundable entry fee/donation to the building fund. In the fall, volunteers conduct an annual door-to-door and for two weekends collect donations at the traffic light intersection of Routes 211 and 229. The very popular annual Santa Run in South Wales takes place the second and third weekends in December.

Little Fork Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company relies on its “village” of firefighters, EMTs, and supporting members like Yvonne and Erin Herbst, who handle admin work, maintain Little Fork’s website, and raise funds. There isn’t enough room to name everyone, but people can show appreciation and support by donating to the Little Fork building fund.

What’s your plan? Injured, sick, accident-prone, stuck somewhere and can’t get free — you want the best help possible. Suppose your beloved elderly fox-hunter, competition or pleasure horse lay down and couldn’t get up… Call Culpeper County Dispatch Office Center at 540-727-7900 for help with your large animal emergency.

Little Fork’s motto says it all: Dedicated to Man and Animal Alike.

For more information: LittleForkVFRC.org