Camel Caper: When animals get stuck, people call MERS

When the all-volunteer Missouri Emergency Response (MERS) Large Animal Rescue pulled a camel out of the mud in De Soto last fall, they figured there's a first time for everything — but, in this case, it would also surely be the last.

They were wrong.

Last Tuesday, the team got an emergency call for a mud-stuck camel at a farm in De Soto — the same farm that placed the call last November, but a different animal.

Arriving at the scene, they found a camel named Carmel up to his chest in mud, says Roger Vincent, the president and founder of MERS. "The camel had been laboring and struggling. He was near death."

The owner has a large farm that houses many exotic animals, Vincent says, which are taken to county fairs and petting zoos.

"It's not like she's a hoarder — she's doing all the right things," he says. "It was just a fluke."

What happened, Vincent figures, is that a packed-dirt area in the barn got muddy from the animals urinating in one spot. Heavy rains exacerbated the problem, creating a sinkhole. When Carmel wandered over to it, she quickly got stuck.

This created two problems, Vincent says: position and suction.

First, the camel became stuck on its side. Camels, like cows and other large animals, can't stay on their sides for long because their organs get crushed by their own weight. Luckily, the owner had managed to get Carmel upright, but she was still stuck.

When an animal gets trapped in mud, it's not the mud causing the problem. It's the suction, which needs highly specialized equipment, like that owned by MERS, to break it. MERS also has wide, webbed straps for lifting the animal after the suction is broken.

Too often, untrained folks attempting to drag a large animal out of danger do more harm than good. "We don't use ropes," Vincent says. "That will kill them. You'll cut serious muscles and vessels, and the animal will die from the injuries you created."

So the team broke the suction and gently — well, as gently as you can haul 1,200 pounds of unhappy camel — pulled Carmel to safety using the owner's tractor. She is now doing just fine.

The nonprofit rescue squad is made of up seventeen volunteers, all with day jobs. They own about $36,000 of highly specialized rescue equipment, including a boat for swift-water rescues. Vincent reports that they've been on 172 calls since forming in 2006, including 24 this year.

"We drop what we're doing and go on these calls," he says. "It's a big dedication and a big commitment."

Most of the eight men and nine women who volunteer have horses, and have agonized over seeing untrained fire departments with the best intentions botching large-animal rescues.

"We've seen too many times where a horse is trapped in a ravine and firefighters are there trying to do the right thing, but if they don't own animals, they don't know the mannerisms of the animal," Vincent says.

The group has encountered skepticism from fire departments when a MERS cadre — including plenty of women — shows up on a site. But, he explains, "It's not about how big and strong you are, it's about how smart you are in using the equipment that's available."

The group trains once a month and goes out on calls whenever it can.

"There are probably less than a dozen groups like ours in the country," says Vincent. "Our philosophy is we'll go anywhere we think we can get to and make a difference for the animal."