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Helping animals in crisis – life as a technical rescue coordinator

24 January 2019
Helping animals in crisis – life as a technical rescue coordinator

Gina Kemp never knows when she will get that urgent call about an animal in need of saving. Here we get thrown into the world of technical animal rescue and spend the day with Gina and SPCA’s National Rescue Unit.

Wading knee-deep in a river, bordered by 60 m sheer rock faces and waterfalls in the Mohaka Forest, Gina Kemp is working against the clock, with a storm fast approaching and a risk of flooding. Part of SPCA’s National Rescue Unit (NRU), Gina and her team have been deployed from SPCA’s Wellington Centre to rescue an 18-month-old greyhound called Patch.

Having fallen off a ridge and landing next to the river, Patch has already spent three days trembling and cold, standing on slippery rocks with nowhere to shelter. Making her way further through the river, watching more clouds roll across the treetops, Gina knows one thing is certain. She needs to get Patch out – and fast. As she wades through the water, carefully climbing over rocks and slippery terrain in search of Patch, adorned in safety gear and ropes, anyone would think working with NRU is what Gina has always dreamed of doing. But for Gina, it started simply by chance.

Gina's Journey

Gina joined SPCA’s Auckland Centre nine years ago as a large animal attendant when she was 18.

“I joined SPCA because I wanted to work with animals while I was studying vet nursing. I’ve just never left,” she says.

Gina started working at SPCA’s Wellington Centre after training as an inspector. She stumbled upon NRU after hearing stories from chief inspector and founding member Ritchie Dawson. With her good friend and SPCA colleague Frankie keen to join, Gina decided to also give it a go.

“It was something worthwhile, exciting and a bit different,” she says. Gina is now a dedicated technical rescue coordinator for NRU, a role she has been in for three years. Any spare time revolves around animal rescue training and coordinating rescue attempts for animals of all shapes and sizes, and in a variety of situations. She clocked up 600 hours of service in 2017 alone. Whether it’s rescuing a calf stuck in the Otaki River, saving a kitten from a 5 m shaft below a car port, rescuing tropical birds in the Edgecumbe flooding, or saving a bull stuck in a gulley, every rescue is memorable, rewarding and challenging in its own way.

“The one- tonne bull was definitely a challenge. He was angry too,” Gina recalls. “Every time I do a rescue, I think ‘this will be the most memorable one’, but it’s not. They are all as memorable as each other. When I do a rescue on the rope, I think ‘rope is my favourite’. When I do a rescue in the river, I think ‘water is my favourite’. But oh wait, confined space is the best!” she laughs. “They are all memorable for their own reasons.”

Patch spent three days standing on slippery rocks with nowhere to shelter, and was rescued just in time by Gina and her team.
Patch spent three days standing on slippery rocks with nowhere to shelter, and was rescued just in time by Gina and her team.

Inside an NRU rescue

Since joining NRU, Gina has never looked back. This love of rescue has brought her to the dense Mohaka Forest in the central North Island, sights set on finding Patch before rain begins to fall and water floods the ravine.

From the beginning, this rescue was difficult. With no proper anchor point for Gina to rig her ropes, it took the team some time to find one to lower Gina down to reach Patch. Beating her way through dense clay, trees and brush on the cliff and reaching a sheer drop, Gina then discovered she was coming down on top of a waterfall and had to redirect her rope around it to finally make it to the rocky river. And that’s when she spotted Patch. “I could see him 10 m away.

The whites of his eyes were showing, his tail was tucked in, and he was trying to press himself into the cliff face so I couldn’t see him. He was obviously very, very nervous,” Gina says. Slowly walking towards him, tossing pieces of dog roll towards him to tempt him towards her, Gina was finally able to reach Patch and get a muzzle on him. “The battle is pretty much over once that has been done,” she says. After getting the harness on Patch and making their way over to her line as quickly as possible, Gina and Patch were hauled up by her team – a haul that wasn’t going to be easy with the redirect in place. “When there were ledges where Patch could plant his feet, he would still try to run away from me a little bit, even though he was attached to the line,” Gina says.

“We got to the top and his owner was stoked, absolutely stoked! Patch was so happy to see his owner.”

Making happy reunions happen

These reunions are the highlight for Gina.

“Rescuing animals is brilliant. Reuniting them with their owners is a favourite for me because for a lot of them, they think there isn’t any hope left. They were already starting to say goodbye,” she says.

“This year we rescued Lily the greyhound. She had fallen down a cliff in the Remutaka Ranges and broken her leg. Her owners had to walk out to get a signal and it was dark.

When we said, ‘We are on our way,’ they responded, ‘It’s okay, we know she’s not going make it, you don’t have to come.’ “With her thin coat, they didn’t think Lily would make it through the cold night.

But we came, we rescued her, and the owners, while delighted, still didn't think she’d make it, but she made a full recovery,” Gina says.

Recognising technical animal rescue

Juggling her full-time work as an inspector as well as her volunteer work with NRU isn’t a problem for Gina, thanks to the great team she works with. “NRU takes up all of my spare time, but I don’t mind because it is like hanging out with your friends.

Working in these environments makes you very close, and it makes you very proud to see people advance and become proficient. I take real joy in that,” Gina says. And now Gina’s hard work has been recognised. Each year, the New Zealand Companion Animal Council (NZCAC) presents the Assisi Awards in ‘recognition of outstanding service to animals’ to individuals who have contributed to the welfare of animals, whether in New Zealand or internationally.

Gina was recently announced as the 2018 winner of an Assisi Award, and was happy to see her field and NRU’s work being recognised.

“Receiving an award that recognises technical rescue, and the importance of the work our team does, was really great. It is such a small and specialised field, and people don’t realise how much work goes into it. If I could have it my way, I would have the whole team get an Assisi Award.”

Back in the Mohaka Forest and with Patch happily reunited with his owner Kevin, a final sweep of the area shows they haven’t left any gear behind, and the NRU team slowly make their way out of the forest towards some good food and a warm dry set of clothes for the journey home.

Another successful rescue is complete and with rain starting to fall, the NRU team are lucky to have rescued Patch when they did.

Completing up to three rescues like this a month, Gina isn’t done yet – she’s already on the search for new recruits to join the NRU team. “There’s so much more to do and learn!” she says.

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