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L.A. River dog rescue a life-changer

And not just for Spikey: Rescuer Joe St. Georges, a firefighter paramedic seen on video saving the dog while dangling from a helicopter, is now a humble celebrity with thousands of adoring fans.

February 04, 2010|By Carla Hall
  • Joseph St. Georges, far right, the firefighter who saved Spikey from the the L.A. River during the January rains; helicopter pilot Scott Bowman, next to St. Georges, who lowered him into the river; and the rest of the L.A. Fire Department rescue team are all smiles after being honored by an animal welfare group.
Joseph St. Georges, far right, the firefighter who saved Spikey from the… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

The men who work Los Angeles Fire Department Air Operations have plucked construction workers off cranes, horses out of ravines and dogs out of washes -- all with news helicopters hovering.

But rarely does their work cast such a public spell as did their recent river rescue of a dog.

On computer screens in offices and TVs in airport terminals, people all over the country watched live on the stormy afternoon of Jan. 22 as paramedic Joe St. Georges was lowered by cable from a helicopter to save the frantic animal from the fast-moving L.A. River in Vernon.

And they kept watching, transfixed, as dog and man were hoisted up, spinning horizontally over the gray water.

St. Georges, who got a badly bitten thumb for his efforts, became an instant celebrity, appearing on the "Today" show and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and accepting the accolades of the animal-loving world.

For saving the dog, now identified as Spikey from Maywood, the 50-year-old firefighter paramedic has been barraged with hundreds of cards from well-wishers and lauded on a Facebook page set up by his admirers.

"You are proof that there are angels walking among us!" gushes one of the 5,353 fans of the page (as of press time) established to "thank LA's dog-saving fire-fighter Joe St. Georges!"

"I'm humbled, I'm amazed," said St. Georges of all the attention. "I don't know what to make of it. It's what we do."

He's also not sure what to make of the women who have been e-mailing, letting him know they'd like to meet him. When he joked on Ellen DeGeneres' show that the rescued dog was now getting more care than he was because he was single and lived alone, "the crowd went wild," he said, insisting he wasn't going for that reaction.

"I think this tends to touch women in a sentimental way. Men are more like, 'That's cool.' With women, it's that nurturing, mothering instinct, for lack of a better way to phrase it. It does seem to touch a chord much deeper with women than men. The vast majority of responses I've seen have been by women. And a few of them have been, 'If you're ever around, I'd like to buy you a drink.' "

So far, he hasn't taken anyone up on their offers, he said.

"That's not just not my style," said St. Georges, a divorced father of two boys. He's shy about dating, he said, as a blush crept across his face.

These days, he lives in an apartment and works in 24-hour shifts. He once had dogs, but his ex, amicably, got custody.

"I've always had dogs. When I have a house and a little more stability, I will get dogs again," he said.

But not on his current schedule. "There are times I'm gone four or five days at a time. That's just not fair to the dog."

This week, as Spikey was reunited with his family, St. Georges and the rest of the rescue crew assembled in a hangar at Van Nuys Airport to receive the MuttShack Animal Rescue Foundation's Knights of Katrina award for exemplifying a "code of chivalry."

"Up front, Joe," called out a cameraman as they held the framed proclamations. St. Georges got a special gift of Kevlar gloves.

In the days since the dramatic rescue, St. Georges has heard the criticism that firefighters took a big and expensive risk.

He's also heard the ribbing, which he doesn't mind; he's a man who grins often and easily.

He laughed when a radio talk show host cracked, "Once it was on national cameras, my grandmother had a better chance of getting left in the wash than the dog did."

Still, St. Georges said seriously, the crew was already deployed that day -- and Spikey was a victim in need.

"We're not going to leave the dog. We're just not," he said. "You're not going to stand there watching a dog drown."

They also didn't want anyone else -- untrained -- to attempt the rescue.

He never worried about rabies, he said: "I was much more concerned about the risk of infection from the water I was in."

The dog tore open a flap of skin around St. Georges' right thumb. Doctors removed his nail, warned him he might need a skin graft and sent him home with Vicodin. (He says he has taken only one.) Even though he's left-handed, his injured thumb, now bandaged with gauze, will sideline him to administrative duty for one to three months.

In the meantime, he has those Facebook fans. He's gone online to respond graciously to their praise. ("Thank you very much for the compliments, Colleen," "Glad I could ease your worries, Holly.")

St. Georges understands the reverence for canines.

"We have a very special connection as a species to dogs, and dogs to us," he said. "Tens of thousands of years of domestication, they've served us very well."

But the public's fascination with him seems to go far beyond man saves dog.

"People have gone crazy about this -- and it's not just animal people," said Christi Metropole, executive director of the Stray Cat Alliance. "There's so much darkness right now that we need something good. I think people in general in our country, if they haven't lost their job, someone they know has. The banks are owning our country. There isn't a lot of hope.

"And here's this firefighter with the dog, and we can channel a little hope through that."

carla.hall@latimes.com

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