Every winter it seems, I hear stories about pets and even wild animals, falling through ice and being rescued by emergency responders. Sadly, I also hear stories about people drowning while trying to save their pets. After a recent tragedy, I learned firsthand how dangerous a frozen pond is and why it’s so important to have an emergency plan.
The Christmas Eve we’ll never forget
It was just another quiet evening at home for us when Will got up to do one of our normal headcounts of the cats around 10 pm. After accounting for six of the seven cats sleeping inside, Will grabbed the spotlight to check the yard for our one missing cat, Moose.
Upon opening the door and shining the light from one side of the yard to the other, an awful yowl came from the direction of the pond. “It’s a cat!” Will shouted as he ran towards the pond, sans shoes. I jumped up and headed to the door, stopping to grab another flashlight and replacing my house shoes for the slip-on shoes I keep at the front door. Will had run back and put on shoes himself and off we both raced towards the pond.
We quickly ran the approximately 100 yards to the other side of the pond, which was the closest side of the pond to Moose, the cat we discovered was the source of the yowling. Unfortunately, that still left us a long way from him. He’d somehow managed to get almost to the middle of the pond before falling through.
Our attempts to rescue Moose
As Will headed back to the house to try to find something we could use to get Moose, I stayed at the pond reassuring Moose to hang on and that we were coming. He’d managed to pull himself about halfway out of the water, but couldn’t get himself all of the way out. The yowls for help he was making were heartbreaking. As I called to him, I ran through every possible option I could come up with in my head as to how we could get him out of this awful situation.
As my flashlight dimmed before going out completely, I kept calling to Moose to just hang on and that we were coming. I ran back to the house to get another flashlight and see if Will was having any luck coming up with anything. We needed something we could use to float out on or use on top of the ice.
All I could see as I looked around the garage for something we could use was the large cooler we use to keep the chicken food in. I told Will, who had been gathering up different types and lengths of rope we had around, to empty the cooler. I told him we could tie a rope on it and use it as a flotation device to get out to Moose and then put him in or on it to get him back to shore.
Unfortunately, when Will tried to swim out to Moose, he had to immediately turn back. The ice was around 1/2″ thick close to the shore and the shock of the cold water was just too much for him. Seeing things were getting dire and what seemed like our only option wasn’t going to work, I told Will to call 911 as I again stayed at the pond and called to Moose. Off Will ran to the house to get his phone and call 911 for help.
Not the emergency response we expected
A few minutes later, Will was still on the phone with the dispatcher who wasn’t sure he was going to send anybody out for our emergency when he made it back to the pond. Even when he heard Moose yowling, and Will responded, “Yes, that’s him.” as I screamed in the background, “We need help NOW!, He’s going to drown!” the dispatcher hesitated.
At this point, Moose had tried swimming to another spot in his hole and I had lost sight of his shining eyes a couple of times. I was growing more frantic as I watched Moose continue to struggle and heard the conversation Will was having with the dispatcher about getting help to us. I decided I had to act.
You know you hear about a mother’s love can lift a car off a toddler? Well, I felt like the direction of how Will’s call with the dispatcher was going was leaving me no choice but to try to save Moose myself. I love every one of my animals dearly and just standing by and letting one drown in front of me without me at least trying to save them wasn’t going to happen.
Even though I knew the water was going to be extremely cold, I felt like my love for Moose would give me the strength to fight through it. Stepping out into the icy water with the cooler floating ahead of me, I headed towards Moose.
I didn’t get six feet or so from the shore when the water became chest-deep and my shoes got stuck in the mud, coming off my feet. I also was having trouble breathing, moving, and talking. The realization that I could easily die trying to save Moose hit me.
Holding on to the end of the rope on shore, Will anchored while still on the phone as I pulled on the slack rope trying to get it tight enough between us to pull myself back to shore. I was only able to get out a very broken “Help me!”, indicating I needed him to pull on the rope while he continued to try to convince the dispatcher to send someone.
With Will’s help, I crawled out of the pond defeated and mad, frustrated and extremely sad. My heart and mind were convinced I could swim out to Moose and save him, but my body refused and that was a hard pill to swallow. If the house had been on fire or ANY other situation had come up, I’d have been the first one in to save any of my animals, but when it came to that water, I had no control and it was devastating.
The emergency crew arrives
It was a few minutes later that we heard a car on the gravel road. We hoped and prayed it was help with a boat or flotation device that we could toss out to Moose. Will had finally gotten off the phone with the dispatcher and was trying to throw a 20 ft. extra wide tow rope out to Moose. It was too short and kept going every direction but towards Moose.
A pair of headlights came down the drive and I immediately began flashing the spotlight at him to drive down to us or to hurry, or whatever. I was in full-on panic mode at this point. Several minutes had passed from the time we’d discovered Moose and after being in that water myself, I knew poor little Moose had to be nearly frozen. Why was nobody taking this emergency seriously?!
To my surprise and frustration, the young man pulled around the circle drive and got out and casually started walking to us. No flashlight, no rope, no flotation device, nothing in his hands. Did he think he was coming to a picnic? I yelled frantically “Do you have a boat?!”. “I’ve got a wet suit.” was his casual reply as he walked up to us.
By now, other cars were pulling up and nobody came towards us with a boat or anything that would help. I was about to lose my mind at their casualness about the situation.
We all basically stood and watched as Moose went under before popping back up and tried to get up on the ice. He was about to be done and I knew it. “HE’S GOING TO DIE!” I cry yelled, “We’ve got to get him!”. Finally, spurred by apparently the sight of Moose going under, the young man who’d been the first on the scene, shucked his clothes, tied the rope around his chest and ran into the pond.
He got out several feet to the deeper water when he hesitated for a moment, ready to come back, as I’m sure he didn’t even expect the water to be as cold as it was. With the help of the volunteers who had gathered around and cheered him on, he was able to stay out there and swim on out and grab Moose.
Unfortunately, the cold was so much for him, and possibly lack of knowledge about dealing with someone in water, that the young man was unable to keep Moose’s head above water as the other rescuers pulled him by the rope, back to shore. Moose ended up coming back those 30 feet mostly underwater, much to my horror. He arrived back on the shore unconscious and not moving.
The fight to save Moose
One of the women volunteers carried Moose as I raced ahead with the spotlight to get towels ready and show her the way to the utility room. Soaking wet and shoeless, I watched helplessly as this stranger held Moose under the running water and massaged on him. After a few minutes, she reached into his mouth and pulled out some sticks and leaves. Nobody had cleared his airway!? I’m not a medical expert, nor have I ever had any formal training, but even I know that you always make sure an unconscious person has a clear airway.
A couple or a few more minutes passed before she wanted to put him on the floor. I had put some towels in the dryer to heat them up, so I grabbed one out for him as she layed him on the floor. She asked one of the volunteers hanging around to get a stethoscope.
Upon checking, she said Moose had a faint heartbeat. She wanted to know if we had a vent or heating pad or something I could put Moose on.
Since I knew Moose had been in that water for several minutes, longer than any of these people could have stood it, and still aggravated from everyone’s casualness about the situation as well as the debris in Moose’s mouth not being checked or removed immediately, I asked her if she had any medical training of any kind. She told me “No.”. That’s when I said “As the owner of this cat, I’m taking charge of him.”
I immediately picked Moose back up and put him under the warm running water. He was so cold, I could feel it deep inside him, past his warmed up outside, as I held him under the warm water and massaged him. I continued to talk to him and beg him to wake up and stay with me.
As I worked on Moose, I wanted to scream at all of these people, especially that dispatcher for taking his sweet time in deciding if he was going to send anyone to help us, wasting valuable minutes that Moose didn’t have to spare. I felt like Moose was slipping away and none of these people even realized how monumental of a tragedy that was to us.
Sadness, anger, and despair were all hitting me like a ton of bricks. “If only” kept running through my head. If only the dispatcher hadn’t been so slow and hesitant about sending us help and if only the rescue people, who are only volunteers who do this for a tiny amount of money per call, had been better trained or better equipped or even just hurried more. Possibly my cat who was showing no signs of life, would be awake and warming up next to me, instead of me desperately trying to get any sign of life from his limp body.
Several minutes passed and Moose still had not responded. I pulled him out of the water to dry him off and another lady came in and tried to do what I guess was CPR on him as he lay motionless on a towel on his side. Bloody water came out of his nose. My heart sank even more. I absolutely could not believe what was happening.
I had no idea what the best thing to do for Moose was and I didn’t trust that these people did either, but what I’d been doing wasn’t working, which had included massaging him vigorously and trying to puff air into his mouth to get him breathing.
Finally, the lady who had done CPR re-checked with the stethoscope and said she thought he was gone. Ignoring her, I continued to talk to and massage on Moose. Moose wasn’t just some outside cat that roamed around here and fell through the ice on our pond. He was a member of our family that we loved dearly and sacrifice so much for, and losing him was a giant loss for us.
Despite what I was hearing, I felt like I could still see life in Moose’s eyes, so I told Will we should take Moose to the emergency vet. I quickly changed out of my wet clothes and wrapped Moose in fresh warm towels and into the car we hurried. The last of the emergency people were just ahead of us and as I thought on the short ride from our house to the blacktop road, I had Will stop the car to re-evaluate the situation.
I’m not a giver upper by nature and I definitely wasn’t giving up on Moose if there was any chance at all that he could pull through this. He’d fought so hard for so long to live out there in that cold water that I wanted to do everything in my power to save him. As we sat in the car though, even though I wanted to believe he could still be saved, I was starting to have my doubts.
So much time had passed without any movement and I had to decide if I really wanted to hand him over to strangers who’d take their sweet time like everyone else before them that night whose help we’d desperately needed, as Moose slowly died alone or whatever. I told Will to take us back home.
The hardest goodbye
Once home, I took Moose to the back and put him on a heated mat I had and began blow-drying his still-wet fur. In the back of my mind, I thought that might still wake him up and it would be a miracle. Meanwhile, Will took a shovel and went around the entire perimeter of the pond, breaking the ice up at least 3 feet out all the way around.
Once Moose was dry, I wrapped him up again in his dry blankets on the heating mat and went outside to see how Will, who I knew was also hurting from this, was doing.
Somewhere in all the craziness, he’d lost his phone and asked me to help him look for it. We retraced our steps, but came up with nothing. After several minutes, I went to check on Moose. He was colder now and not from being in the cold water. The door to the possibility of him gaining consciousness and surviving this slammed hard in my face. I just cried. I had assured him to just hang on and that we were coming and despite meaning it with every fiber of my being, I had let him down.
What every pet owner should know about ice and pets
If you have any frozen body of water near your house or on your walks with your pets, always be aware of the possible danger of them falling through the ice. Pets don’t know that ice is dangerous. I never saw Moose on the pond before that night and for all I know, he chased a mouse out there for the first time that night, not paying attention to his surroundings.
Whatever the reason they do it, pets do end up on ice and sometimes they fall through. If there are pets around your property, just make sure to keep a closer eye on them when there is ice covering the body of water. Cats are nocturnal, so don’t stop checking on them when the sun goes down. If you are walking a cat or dog near an ice-covered body of water, keep them on a leash so they can’t run out onto the ice unattached and fall through.
Also, have a mental plan of what you’ll do if your cat or dog does fall through the ice, including buying any necessary items you’ll need or remembering to have your phone on you in case you need to call for emergency help. It might seem silly to worry about such a minute theoretical accident if you don’t have a body of water around you, or rarely go to that nearby park in winter, but nobody is exempt from accidents happening. Nobody.
And finally, if you live in a very rural area like we do that is staffed only by volunteers, don’t count on that being your only plan if anything should happen. While they may be excellent at fighting fires or a number of other things, my experience with the 911 dispatcher and the rescue department was nothing like I’d expected after seeing tv shows and news stories on tv regarding animals being saved from perilous situations.
Not having a plan can have deadly consequences
Last Spring, after being up working through the night, I’d stepped outside early one morning to check on one of my dogs that I’d let out, before going to bed. I immediately heard a terrible yowling sound coming from the pond.
I grabbed a flashlight and raced to where I saw my dog Jake on the pond bank and a set of eyes in the water. As I got to the pond, expecting to see a raccoon or something, I recognized it as one of our other cats, Cooper, about 5 to 6 feet out in about four feet of water.
It only took me a few seconds to see that Cooper was struggling. I carefully waded out until I could reach him. Grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, I skimmed him along the top of the water to the bank. Once I got myself out of the water, I scooped Cooper up and raced to the house. It had taken him several minutes using warm towels and blankets to fully warm up and be ok, and I remembered that as I was working on Moose.
Later, I recounted to Will how cold that water was and how I didn’t know what I would have done if Cooper had been much further out. We agreed that we needed to get “something” “just in case”, even though that was the only incident we’d ever had in 19 years. Unfortunately, my two senior dogs had some health issues suddenly pop up and then winter was gone and we’d forgotten about the possible danger of an ice-covered pond.
Why you should avoid jumping into an icy body of water
If you have outdoor cats and dogs and a body of water near you that they could possibly fall through, I recommend having an emergency plan before you actually need it. Whether it be to use a boat of some sort you have, or a flotation device that you can tie a rope onto and toss out for the cat to grab onto, like this one, https://amzn.to/2QL9TmZ, just make sure you have one.
Make sure the rope is plenty long in case the cat is really far out like Moose was. Have everything you need in a designated area and ready, as I can tell you that during the heat of the moment, it can be hard to think rational, as all you want to do is save your pet as quickly as possible.
Before writing this post, I looked up drownings while saving pets because while I’d heard of it happening plenty of times, I really didn’t know any of the details. After having tried to swim out in icy water myself, I can definitely see how one could easily drown. In all the stories I read, I only found one that actually explained it the best. It was the experience from a lifeguard who tried to swim out and save a woman who’d tried to save her dog. Here is the story if you’d like to read it, https://www.nj.com/news/2009/01/plainsboro_woman_drowns_trying.html
From the article and my own experience, I believe that it’s not the fact that the people who jump in to save their pets CAN’T swim, it’s because the people who jump in AREN’T ABLE to swim because of how unexpectedly cold the water is. It literally shuts your body down. That’s why rescuers you see on tv doing icy water rescues are wearing special wetsuits.
As soon as we’d laid Moose to rest that night, we immediately began searching for a boat. Even though the very next day all of the ice had completely disappeared from the pond, leaving no evidence of the horrific scene the night before, we were still haunted by it and vowed to be prepared in the future.
Within a couple of weeks, we’d found and purchased a used small boat that is light enough either Will or I can handle on our own. As soon as we brought it home and carried it down to the pond, we each took turns maneuvering it around in the water to get a feel for it in case we should ever need to use it.
We’re also purchasing a life vest, a flotation device, and probably a long-handled net in the next couple of weeks once finances allow. We’ve also burned the excess weeds around the pond, hopefully eliminating a good portion of any hiding spots for mice or other little critters that might tempt a cat out onto an ice-covered pond. The ice will be broken up around the edges of the pond from now on as well.
It’s all too little too late for us and Moose, but hopefully it will help us avoid another tragedy and sharing all of this will help others avoid a similar tragedy. Every day we think about how the outcome would have been different if we’d had a boat or a flotation device we could have thrown out to Moose, or even if the rescue people we’d called had reacted faster.
Whether you have a situation like ours, where your animals are inside/outside or your animals are 100% inside and you only have to worry about a plan for something like flooding, a tornado, or a fire, please make sure you have one.
In researching for this post, I was shocked to learn that a staggering 40,000 pets perish in homes every year from fires. I have to wonder if having a plan beforehand to save them would change those numbers any.
Whatever your situation, if you don’t have a plan for possible scenarios that apply to you and your pets, please make one now. As we learned the hard way, your pet’s life could very well depend on it someday.
(To those wondering, the young man who jumped into the pond to retrieve Moose is fine. The rescuers had left a towel and blanket behind when they left, so I washed them and Will dropped them off at the fire station they are based out of. I also included a thank you note I wrote for the young man thanking him for risking his life to get Moose along with a gift card.)
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