Va. girl sparks national campaign for pet oxygen masks

Monica Plumb conducted research and then did some fundraising so the five fire trucks in her county could carry the life-saving equipment

By Sharon L. Peters

POWHATAN, Va. — Pets in dozens of towns across the nation are more likely to survive a fire because of the efforts of a young girl.

Propelled two years ago by a news account of a dog that survived a fire because of a specially designed oxygen mask for pets, Monica Plumb of Powhatan, Va., conducted research and then did some fundraising so the five firetrucks in her county could carry similar equipment.

Once she had achieved that goal, she continued soliciting donations — using her website ( and collection cans, giving speeches, whatever it took. As of this week, she has supplied nearly 300 fire stations from Maine to Alaska with the pet-saving equipment.

"I hope at some point, every fire department has these kits," says Monica, 12. She'll continue her efforts until that's a reality, then turn her energy "to some other project to help animals."

Monica is among thousands of people, groups and pet-loving businesses working to get pet oxygen mask kits — which contain various-sized, cone-shaped masks to fit on all manner of animal noses — into the hands of first responders.

These efforts have equipped thousands of firetrucks and emergency units in recent years; thousands more still need the kits, which cost from $60 to more than $100, depending on the supplier.

Masks for humans often fail
The U.S. Fire Administration doesn't track fire-related pet deaths, but experts estimate from 40,000 to more than 100,000 animal die each year, most of them from inhaling poisonous gases. Firefighters regularly wage intense efforts to save animals, even to the point of doing mouth-to-nose breathing, using human oxygen masks, or creating makeshift masks from cups and oxygen hoses, to try to resuscitate them. But none efficiently delivers oxygen, and the efforts often fail.

The pets' best chance of survival is receiving oxygen through a specially designed mask, but most fire departments cannot spend money for gear other than that which is used to save human lives. Moreover, buying pet-mask kits is a costly venture when a city has several vehicles in its fleet.

As awareness increases, animal lovers, specialty-breed aficionados and various animal-welfare groups are rallying. Massachusetts veterinarians have donated kits to about 50 fire departments throughout the state through a program established by the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association's charitable arm; early this month the Munford, Tenn., fire department received three kits donated by a pet-loving local couple; and this year, Casper, Wyo., first responders received 12 kits after the Central Wyoming Kennel Club asked the Invisible Fence Co. to donate them.

Companies do their share
Invisible Fence, in fact, has donated more than 5,100 kits to stations across the USA. Chicago firefighters, within days of receiving 235 kits in May, used their new units to revive two dogs and two cats hauled from a house fire. The company has documented at least 25 animals saved by kits it has donated.

Another big corporate contributor to the cause: Best Friends Pet Care, a network of boarding, grooming and training facilities in 18 states. Through a five-year campaign begun in 2004, the company offered matching funds for money-gathering efforts to supply kits to fire departments within 15 miles of its 40 locations.

"That was early in the awareness curve," says Best Friends Pet Care's Deb Bennetts. "We had to educate and convince many fire chiefs about the value of the masks." By the end of that first year, "we had donated about 250 masks and began to get reports" of pets saved, including several dogs and cats rescued from a Rocky Hill, Conn., apartment fire one week after firefighters got the masks.

In all, the business has donated 3,500 sets of masks to dozens of fire departments from Houston to Sacramento, from Charlotte to Oklahoma City. Half of the $200,000 worth of masks was covered by little community fundraisers, including Scout troop collections, penny drives in schools and lemonade stands.

Young Monica Plumb, who plans to become a veterinarian and is already visiting vet schools, had "no idea (her campaign) would go this far."

She figures donors, who contribute $1, $5 or $20 to her efforts, do so because they understand "that we're helping pets, we're helping their families and we're helping the firefighters."

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