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Owner claims dog rescued by firefighters from swollen L.A. River

January 28, 2010 |  2:04 pm

Dog rescue

Turns out Vernon is actually Spikey.

The German shepherd mix rescued by firefighters last week from a swelling Los Angeles River has been claimed, animal control authorities said today.

A family friend of an elderly Maywood woman went to the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority on Tuesday to claim the dog, whom firefighters had named Vernon, after the city where the dog was rescued.

"And Vernon just went crazy, his tail flapping," said Aaron Reyes, director of operations. "We see it all the time: Gosh, he really knows this guy."

Although animal control officials questioned why it took so long for the family to come forward to claim the dog, whose real name is Spikey, the friend said the owner speaks only Spanish and missed extensive TV coverage of the Jan. 22 rescue. A friend eventually pointed it out to them a few days later, Reyes said.

"It didn't get a lot of play on Spanish-language TV," he said.

Animal control officials visited the Maywood home, checked the dog's license and spoke with the owner. They also spoke with neighbors and learned that Spikey's "brother," a yellow Labrador named Polo, was picked up by animal control the day after the rescue after being found walking down a street, Reyes said.

The owner thinks her grandchildren may have left the backyard gate open, letting the dogs loose. Polo will be released to the owner once the backyard is cleaned up, Reyes said.

Spikey is under quarantine until Tuesday because it bit the firefighter, Joe St. Georges, 50, who pulled him from the river.

Many questioned the decision by firefighters to launch an airborne rescue operation to pluck the 3-year-old dog from the river, especially after the dog bit St. Georges in the hand.

But many factors played a role in the decision to save the dog, said Steve Ruda, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. One was the concern that someone would risk his or her life to save the dog.

"If we did not do anything, there was potential for another human being to enter the river," Ruda said, citing national statistics showing that of 900 people who die in drownings each year, a third involve would-be rescuers.

At least 50 firefighters responded to reports of the dog in the river during a heavy rainstorm. Firefighters stood on the steep, concrete banks, throwing life vests and float rings, hoping the dog would grab one.

But mostly he walked along a pipe or ledge in the river, sometimes slipping. One firefighter got into the river and tried to catch it, but the dog took off. Soon the pipe was submerged.

After an hour passed, officials decided to send an LAFD helicopter. As the aircraft moved into position overhead, the dog scrambled to the side of the river and tried to climb, only to slip each time. Next, St. Georges, a 25-year veteran, was lowered from the helicopter and wrestled with the frightened dog, lifting it to safety after the dog bit his hand.

Ruda said Los Angles fire officials had received a request for help from the city of Vernon, which did not have the resources to pull off the rescue. One of the on-scene commanders also happened to oversee special operations for the LAFD, including swift-water air and urban search and rescue.

Although the current was moving quickly, firefighters determined the water was not that deep, Ruda said. He said it also was an opportunity for rescuers to hone their skills. Even though firefighters train for such incidents, it's no substitute for real-life conditions.

"Any time we get a chance to practice our craft, it sharpens our skills," Ruda said. "They felt it was low risk and high return."

Ruda said he hopes people realize the rescue was rooted in what firefighters consider their most important calling, saving lives.

"It was an animal life," he said. "It is a life."

-- Raja Abdulrahim and Andrew Blankstein

Photo: The dog that was rescued from the L.A. River. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times