Boston People More People

Animal Rescue League

Saving Lives in the Wild

Written by Kristi Palma
Photos and Video by Guru Amar Khalsa

It was 1:57 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday in early March when Acenett Arce followed Bill Tanguay down the wet, debris-covered stairs of her house.

It had been one week since an electrical fire destroyed her home of 11 years — a pink two-story ranch in Hyde Park — and one week since she’d last seen her beloved cat, Sonic.

The thick, stale air reeked of smoke. Arce feared Sonic was dead, thinking if the fire didn’t get him, the smoke surely did.

Still, she returned to the ravaged house daily, stepping over broken glass and pieces of ceiling, scooting past damp furniture to sprinkle cat food on the floor, and calling out his name.

One day, a mover reported seeing a cat dart down the stairs. Filled with hope, Arce searched online for “animal rescue” in Boston. Information about a local rescue team popped up on her screen. It was 12:16 p.m. when she made the call.

Tanguay, a senior rescue technician with the Animal Rescue League of Boston, was assigned the rescue at 12:36 p.m. About an hour later, he met Arce at her boarded up front door.

The Team

A dog clinging to an icy stream at Millennium Park in West Roxbury …

An injured hawk perched in a tree at Constitution Beach in East Boston …

A kitten lodged in the wall of a Chelsea salon …

The list of Massachusetts animals rescued by the Animal Rescue League’s Animal Rescue Team is long. And it gets longer each day. In 2014 alone, the team completed more than 3,800 rescue activities.

Bill Tanguay, left, and Brian O'Connor helped out some geese covered in oil during a rescue in Quincy.

The five members make the Commonwealth’s animals their top priority, which doesn’t come hard to this group of hard-core animal lovers: Tanguay, 38, of Jamaica Plain, manager Brian O’Connor, 43, from Hampstead, New Hampshire.H., assistant manager Mike Brammer, “the oldest,” from Kingston, Danielle Genter, 43, of Stoughton, and Mark Vogel, 45, of Billingham.

The team members own 19 pets between them.

The 116-year-old non-profit Animal Rescue League of Boston has always done rescue work, but it didn’t have a formal department dedicated to rescues until 2005. Today, the ARL, which has shelters in Boston, Dedham, and Brewster, is the only animal welfare organization in the state with a technically trained animal rescue team.

The team’s members have worked at the ARL for nearly two decades and have completed extensive training in technical animal, large animal, swift water, high angle technical, ice, and tree rescue.

“There is nothing common about what they do,” said Mary Nee, president of the ARL of Boston. “It’s a very physical job, scaling walls and trees and going onto ice, etcetera. They have enormous expertise in animal handling and understanding animal behavior. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Commonwealth.”

The team’s salary and equipment is paid for by donations, said Nee.

“We are completely dependent upon the philanthropy of individuals around our region who believe in what we do,” said Nee. “Without the support of individuals in our community, that team wouldn’t exist.”

“We’ve rescued everything from bats to whales and pretty much everything in between,” said Brammer.

The team rescues farm animals and wildlife as well as pets. Cats, dogs, turkeys, geese, iguanas, chickens, owls, snakes, raccoons, seals, emus, roosters, alligators, hawks, cows, goats, skunks, horses, fish, chicks, and swans have all been freed from precarious situations by the team.

“It’s especially rewarding rescuing wildlife, as there are not that many people or organizations that will help them,” said Brammer.

Boston’s Animal Care and Control unit sometimes joins forces with the team.

“These guys are the best, simply the best,” said Dan Gillis, a Boston animal control officer. “I couldn’t do my job without them half the time.”

Sonic's Rescue

Sonic hid deep in the bowels of his Hyde Park home, gutted by the fire.

The 1-year-old gray kitty with black stripes and white paws was the only one home when the fire broke out at 2 p.m. on that fateful Tuesday. And for seven full days after the flames were extinguished, the indoor cat quietly roamed the ravaged rooms of his house.

Tanguay, armed with a cat carrier, walked down the stairs to the basement level of the house to look for Sonic. His owner Arce followed.

Once in the basement, Tanguay paused before stepping past overturned furniture, broken belongings, and chunks of plaster to get to the bedroom on the far side of the room where Arce believed Sonic was hiding. As Arce faced the haunting contents of her home, she thought about her kitty.

Sonic, an affectionate cat, would routinely wake her up in the morning with a playful swat of the paw. When Arce returned home from work in the evening, he’d happily run to her, meowing. She longed to hear his meow again.

They entered the tan bedroom, bright with sunlight from a ground-level window. Tanguay closed the door and Arce side-stepped the tousled belongings to stand watch by the closet.

Tanguay knelt on the wet carpet to look under the bed. Sonic peered back at him.

He slowly moved the mattress, which was covered in broken glass. As he did, the cat bolted out from underneath it.

“Sonic!” called Arce. “Hi, baby. Hi, sweetie.”

The cat ran in a low crouch toward the door and froze when he realized it was shut. He looked left, then right for an escape.

“Hi,” said a calm Tanguay, walking slowly toward the cat. “Hi.”

Tanguay picked up the cat and Arce stepped closer to see him, repeating “Hi, sweetie.” Sonic was uncharacteristically quiet. Tanguay placed him into the carrier and then heard a low growl from the feline as he was carried from the room.

Sonic breathed fresh air for the first time in seven days when Tanguay carried him outside and placed his carrier on a pillar near the sidewalk. The cat curled up in the back of the carrier, his body tense, his gaze fixed.

“Oh my God, I am so happy!” said Arce, walking over to the carrier. “When you have a pet, it’s like having a child. I was so worried about him.”

She bent down to look in at her pet.

“It’s OK, baby. I know, I know,” Arce cooed, poking a finger through the grate to pet her cat’s fur.

And then, she heard it. It was soft but unmistakable.


Thinking Outside the Box

A duck tangled in netting on an icy patch of ocean 300 feet from shore in Gloucester …

A crying cat stuck high in a hemlock tree in Hyde Park …

A group of horses trapped in a collapsed barn in Stoughton …

One team member is always on dispatch, taking calls from the community. The tips set the team in motion. And they never stop coming.

Armed with eight vehicles, two horse trailers, traps, nets, poles, flotation devices, tree kits, and more, the team crisscrosses Massachusetts seven days a week, responding to animals in need. Sometimes they work solo. For bigger jobs, they team up.

They’ve learned to expect the unexpected, especially when dealing with a living, breathing, scared animal.

“We’ve done [rescued] hundreds, probably thousands, of cats out of a tree, and no two are the same,” said O’Connor. “Sometimes you have to use a different tree, sometimes you need two people, sometimes you need a trap in a tree, sometimes a cat comes running and jumps before you’re ready for it…”

When they’re not in trees, they’re repelling into buildings — and the Charles River.

“Mike and I had a cat that had fallen down into an old air shaft in the middle of an apartment building,” said O’Connor. “And there was no access. We had to rig up a system and repel down from the third floor.”

“That’s part of the challenge that we like, is thinking outside of the box,” said Genter.

There have been many rescues in the Charles. Once, Vogel lowered himself from a railing into the river to rescue a dog that had jumped into the water and scrambled onto a patch of land wedged between a wall and rocks. The water surrounding the dog was 10 feet deep.

“The dog tried to lunge at him, so he needed a restraint pole,” said O’Connor.

Water rescue is a theme year-round in Massachusetts.

“The worst thing for us is when the ice breaks,” said O’Conner. “It just makes it really difficult.”

When ice breaks, ice rescue suits help the team float. But most important, said O’Connor, is keeping your cool.

“We don’t panic,” he said.

They also don’t panic when the birds attack.

“We all get bit by the seagulls and the geese and the swans all the time,” said O’Connor, adding the bites never break skin. “A swan once grabbed onto the back of Bill’s neck and shook him around.”

The team has largely managed to avoid injury. O’Connor said a feral cat bite on his finger once landed him in the hospital for a weekend.

“It’s pretty amazing considering how many animals we’ve put our hands on,” said Vogel about the lack of injuries. “We’ve handled literally thousands of animals.”

“We know how to not get ourselves in dangerous situations really well,” said Tanguay.

The animals don’t always fare so well.

Most of the time, they say the team is able to complete the rescue. But that doesn’t mean the animal always survives. Sometimes an animal is so injured by its plight that it dies or must be euthanized. O’Connor remembers those animals. Among them are the draft horse that fell through a barn floor in Walpole, the 46 pilot whales stranded on a beach in Dennis, and the deer that fell through the ice in Waltham.

“In many cases we understand that we may be rescuing animals that are injured to the point that they may not be able to get rehabbed,” said O’Connor. “In those cases, all we can do is take solace in the fact that we aren’t leaving an animal out there to suffer.”

But more rescues end on a happy note than a sad one, according to the team, which makes a point of following each animal’s journey through rescue, recovery, and adoption at the ARL.

“The shelter is really good about letting us know about the animals we bring in,” said O’Connor. “That is nice to be able to follow up on them.”

And then there are the rescues that don’t happen at all. Sometimes when a rescuer arrives at a scene, the animal is gone. In those cases, the team doesn’t mind the effort it took to get there.

As Vogel put it, “You’d rather show up and find out that there was nothing wrong versus not showing up and finding out something was seriously wrong.”

High-Profile Rescues

A loose goat roaming across Greater Lowell …

A cat plummeting 19 stories from a Boston high-rise …

A submerged dog chained to a house in Louisiana …

“A lot of what we do isn’t necessarily picture worthy or news worthy,” said Tanguay. “It’s almost kind of rare that something sad or devastating happens.”

But if you do the job long enough, you’ll inevitably make the news.

When a cat falls 19 floors from a Boston high-rise and survives, reporters want to talk to you about it. Brammer was quoted in news reports about the 2012 incident.

Brammer and O’Connor were assigned that rescue, finding a small impact crater dotted with white fur in the ground when they arrived at the base of the Storrow Drive high-rise where the cat had landed. The concierge told them the cat had run into the lobby. The pair found the cat, coaxed her into a carrier, and took her to the ARL for a medical evaluation. Miraculously, she had no serious injuries.

The team travels nationwide and worldwide to help animals during natural disasters. They went to Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, the latter landing them on an episode of Animal Planet’s Untamed and Uncut. Tanguay traveled to Haiti to assist the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) after the earthquake of 2010. He helped treat up to 500 farm animals and pets a day, giving vaccines and treating for parasites and lacerations.

After Katrina, the team was asked by the American Humane Association (AHA) to help with a massive animal rescue effort. The team drove two trucks to Louisiana in August of 2005 and worked long days over a period of two weeks rescuing cats and dogs from the roofs of flooded neighborhoods and transporting them to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzalez.

In one abandoned home, they found 14 cats. Other animals rescued included birds, gerbils, hamsters, and snakes. When the neighborhoods were too flooded to walk through, they used boats. The team was given an Animal Emergency Services Valor Award by the American Humane Association for its role in the Katrina rescues.

“It was very rewarding knowing you were getting animals out of that situation,” said Brammer.

In September 2008, team members found themselves back in Louisiana, this time to assist the IFAW with animal rescues in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

Tanguay and Vogel flew to Baton Rouge and then drove to Lake Charles. They learned that a submerged Rottweiler was chained to a house as flood waters rose. The dog didn’t have much time, so they set off to save him.

“It took us a little while to find the dog, because all you could see was his head above water,” said Tanguay.

The dog had already bit one person, so the men approached him with caution. He was wearing a thick leather collar, which the men cut using a small pair of scissors Tanguay found in his pocket. They didn’t have much in the way of supplies since they had driven straight from the airport.

Watching the IFAW video of the rescue, you hear the dog unleash a guttural screech when freed.

“You’re OK, you’re OK!” Vogel said, jumping back from the dog.

“He would’ve drowned at this point if no one had come along and cut him loose,” said Tanguay.

The men, using a rope, coaxed the dog into the water to swim to the rescue boat. From the boat, he was caged and then brought to a shelter for food and water.


When Animal Planet got wind of the dramatic Rottweiler rescue, it asked Tanguay for an interview for Untamed and Uncut, a show about incredible animal encounters.

“It was a lot of fun telling family and friends I was going to be on national television,” Tanguay said. “But the interview itself was kind of stressful. All those bright, hot lights and multiple cameras freaked me out a little bit. I guess Hollywood’s probably not for me.”

Like A Family

After working side by side for more than a decade, the members of the team know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, can read each other’s thoughts, and have layer upon layer of shared experiences. In short, they’re a family.

“I see them sometimes more than I see my family,” said Genter, the mother of two young girls.

“Just like all families, you have your good times and your bad times,” said Brammer. “But you all respect each other and love each other.”

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