German Firefighters Burdened by Animal Rescues

PHOTO: A cow standing in a partly frozen-over swimming pool, is rescued by the Fire Brigade Windeck in Windeck, Germany, Dec. 8, 2012.PlayFeuerwehr Windeck/HANDOUT/EPA
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German fire departments respond to more than 40,000 animal rescue calls per year -- from dogs stuck down badger holes to cows in frozen swimming pools. Now the debate has begun as to who should pay for them.

It doesn't always take a house fire for 23 firefighters in five fire trucks to be deployed. Sometimes all it takes is a cat named Murphy, who slipped while exploring the rooftops and fell down a chimney.

This particular incident occurred in Dellbrück, a neighborhood in the city of Cologne. The rescue workers who responded to Murphy's accident first closed down part of a busy street to make space for their ladder truck. They then used a state-of-the-art endoscope camera to pinpoint the cat's precise location. The entire operation cost about €3,000 ($3,900).

Murphy's rescue is an example of a normal day in the life of a German firefighter. Whether volunteer or professional, Germany's fire departments respond to more than 40,000 cases a year of animals in need of rescuing.

The past few weeks have been "rubber boat season," meaning firefighters are regularly called out by boat to retrieve dogs who, let off their leashes while out for a walk, ran onto frozen lakes or ponds and fell through the ice.

A €14,000 Dog Rescue

With municipal budgets tight, many cities and towns are debating who should pay for these life-saving but expensive operations: The pets' owners, or taxpayers?

That fire departments have an obligation to respond in cases of mortal danger to animals, as well as humans, is not in question. But Germany's federal states vary widely in their views on who should cover the costs. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, where Cologne is located, pet owners are obliged to pay for such rescues only when they intentionally cause the animal's plight.

In Murphy's case, this means the cat's owner would have had to personally throw Murphy down the chimney in order to be held liable. Berlin's fire department, though, is stricter. Residents of the German capital are expected, for example, to keep their dogs on a leash.

A few weeks ago, a terrier named Skipper crawled into a badger's burrow in Berlin and got stuck among the tree roots. It was a situation in which every minute counted, so more than 40 firefighters and members of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief arrived to search for the dog, digging holes in the ground up to three meters (10 feet) deep.

By the time Skipper was finally rescued, after seven hours of work, the cost of the operation had exceeded €14,000. The city's lawyers spent two months examining the case, and in the end Skipper's owner received the bill.

"It simply can't be that the general public has to pay for pet owners who don't look out for their pets and fail to keep them properly leashed," says Jens-Peter Wilke, a spokesperson for Berlin's fire department.

Germany's association of firefighters considers rescuing animals "an important duty," says spokesperson Silvia Darmstädter, but adds that owners are often too quick to assume that their pets are in mortal danger. In the case of a dog stuck in a badger's burrow, she says, deploying the fire department was most likely justifiable, but doing so for a cat up a tree is probably not.

"Most cats eventually dare to climb down by the time they start getting hungry," Darmstädter explains. In fact, she says, often it's enough just to put out food near the tree. Pet owners who are unwilling to wait and call the fire department for help instead, Darmstädter suggests, should be the ones to foot the bill.

'Absolutely Heartless'

Explaining this position to worried animal lovers, though, can be a tricky business. The fire department in the city of Osnabrück learned that lesson after receiving five calls within the space of a few minutes concerning a cat stuck up a tree.

The fire department refused to deploy a truck, arguing that a housecat can easily spend as many as three days in a tree without suffering any ill effects. A local newspaper reported the story, after being contacted by a mother who wrote that her daughter, who had seen numerous pictures in children's books of firefighters rescuing cats, was devastated by the refusal.

"We were left looking absolutely heartless," says Jan Südmersen, head of the Osnabrück fire department. Now the city is establishing a volunteer animal rescue group, which will provide assistance to the fire department. This special unit can also respond in cases when parakeets or doves escape, or when, as occurred in the western German town of Windeck in December, a cow fleeing a butcher jumps into a swimming pool.

Sometimes, though, people call the emergency number 112 without a good reason. Osnabrück's fire department received one call about a hamster stuck in a drain, for example. Even a common tree frog found sitting in the corner of a basement turned into an emergency -- the caller didn't want to approach the amphibian too closely, because he thought it might be a poison dart frog.

It also turns out that in the case of Murphy, the cat who fell down a chimney in Cologne, the owner could have held off before calling the fire department. Having failed to extract the cat from the chimney after four hours of work, the firefighters left, planning to return the next day and begin cutting into the chimney directly.

But to the good fortune of all concerned -- Murphy, the owner and the fire department -- that same day a 70-year-old chimney sweep who worked in the neighborhood and had heard about the situation stopped by. The man climbed up the roof and reached fearlessly into the chimney. Ten minutes later, Murphy was free. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.