USA — This is the last installment in a year-end series of stories on the people and events that made headlines in 2008.
As wildfires ravaged the county this summer, county Animal Services Field Supervisor Todd Stosuy kept his cool.
Stosuy, an unassuming man with a soft spot for furry creatures, took responsibility for coordinating the rescue of animals from the fire zone. With little support — usually just a handful of volunteers and a couple of other Animal Services officers — and no fire gear, Stosuy came in on his days off to coordinate the safe escape of dogs, cats and farm animals from the Summit, Martin and Trabing fires.
Fire victims celebrated his efforts and some called him a hero. After the fires, the county’s Community Assessment Program honored Stosuy and three other animal evacuators — Lyn Hood of the Santa Cruz County Equine Evacuation Unit and Kristi Locatelli and Mary Sullivan-White of the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association — as community heroes.
However, Stosuy is remarkably humble about his role in evacuating about 875 animals, including 325 domestic animals and 550 horses and other livestock. In a recent interview, the 32-year-old said the community response to his efforts has been “extremely overwhelming.” Earlier this month, he was recognized and thanked when he went to the dentist for teeth cleaning but given the chance, he would rather talk about current animal neglect investigations instead of why he did what he did during the fires.
“When I was out there, I was just doing my job,” Stosuy said.
But that’s not entirely true. New state and federal laws passed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 require animal evacuation to be an element of any disaster response plan. However, Stosuy said the rescues done in Santa Cruz County during the summer’s three major wildfires were “precedent-setting” in the field of animal control. Usually, animal workers will arrange pre-emptive evacuations, like during the summer fires in Big Sur, or come through after the flames have been knocked down to search for creatures who survived.
Instead, Stosuy searched for animals as sheriff’s deputies notified and evacuated residents.
“It is a parallel mission and was a necessary function,” Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Fred Plageman said of the work done by Animal Services officers. He said Stosuy was organized and efficient during the fires.
“I mean that from my heart. That guy was really good,” Plageman said. “He’s a shining star for his organization.”
The National Animal Control Association Board, which Stosuy sits on, is considering creating policy based on the coordinated animal rescues done during the fires in Santa Cruz County. For that, Stosuy said he is proud he can have a role in shaping the future of his profession.
“Because of the work we did, it’s showing people what animal control can do,” Stosuy said.
Locally, emergency responders and volunteers are designing better plans for handling disasters in the wake of the wildfires, such as staging areas with cell phone coverage and including an Animal Services representative at the emergency command center.
Stosuy and other animal rescuers had challenges communicating during the fires, especially the Summit and Martin blazes, because cell phone coverage was spotty and Cal Fire dispatchers were using channels separate from those Animal Services communicates on.
“I think that what I’m looking forward to is to do a little bit of planning,” said Steve Richmond, one of the administrators of the county’s Equine Evacuation Unit and a retired Cal Fire division chief who still does part-time community fire protection planning and Fire Safe work.
Running into the fire’
Behind the wheel of his white Animal Services pickup with his dog, Lake, at his side, Stosuy said his reaction during the fires was what came naturally.
“I’ve kind of just been used to disasters since I was a kid. I’m used to running into the fire,” he said. “It’s how I work best: under stress, under pressure.”
Stosuy, who became a trained emergency medical technician when he was 17, studied sociology and criminology in college. Then he spent a long time looking for a career that he thought helped people.
He doesn’t talk a lot about his past — Stosuy said he likes to be a private person during his off time — but said he worked “in corporate America” on the East Coast. He was a medic for eight years, until the ambulance calls in the rough New Jersey neighborhood he worked got to be too much. After that, Stosuy became a teacher, and his new career brought him to inner-city Philadelphia. That position, too, proved disheartening. Stosuy said the first-graders he taught sometimes brought knives to school and their parents came in for teacher conferences high on drugs.
So he shelved teaching and took a cross-country road trip. During the three-month odyssey, Stosuy said he realized how much he loves animals.
In California, Stosuy found the Farm Sanctuary, a 300-acre farm animal rescue west of Chico. After interning with the rescue group for three months, Stosuy got work as an animal cruelty caseworker for PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In time, he landed in Santa Cruz and, six years ago, was hired by county Animal Services.
He feels at home on the Central Coast, an area where he finds people share his opinions about human and animal rights. A vegan, Stosuy appreciates the vegetarian movement and local, fresh veggies.
But it’s his job where Stosuy seems to find the most comfort. He regularly works on his days off — the Summit and Martin fires both ignited on his days off, but he came in regardless — and brings Lake to the office with him every morning. It was just by chance that the 11-year-old rescued mutt wasn’t with him when the Trabing Fire started. Stosuy had a ride-along with him so Lake had stayed behind.
I don’t feel like a hero’
Although Stosuy evacuated animals — mostly pets — during the Summit and Martin fires, it was his work during the Trabing Fire in mid-June that drew accolades from the community.
Before the Trabing Fire broke out, he was outside of Watsonville about 10 minutes away confiscating puppies that had been left behind when people were evicted from a foreclosed home. He left the other Animal Services officer with the puppies and rushed to the fire. In the first few minutes of the blaze, he and a few other law enforcement officers were the only emergency responders on scene, so Stosuy was evacuating residents and animals.
The wind-driven fire moved fast through the eucalyptus groves and pastures on Larkin Valley.
Not knowing which way the flames would flare, Stosuy went door-to-door, then began heading to addresses where residents had called to report trapped animals.
“I think he jumped to the task at hand,” said Henry Brzezinksi, general manager of Animal Services who took over the agency about two months after the fires.
“Certainly, he was Johnny-on-the-spot and did an excellent job,” Richmond, of the Equine Rescue Unit, said.
Richmond pointed out that Animal Services had never been called on to help during a wildfire before the summer. The last major wildfire in the area was the Lexington Fire in 1985. Back then, the horsemen in the Santa Cruz Mountains handled their own animals and volunteers — mostly residents — helped their neighbors save pets.
But Richmond said he wasn’t surprised to see Stosuy and other Animal Services officers inside the fire lines.
“We recognize that that’s their responsibility,” he said. “I think that from our Santa Cruz County Equine Evacuation group, we feel Animal Services did a great job. Todd was out there directing most of it.”
Of course, it wasn’t all happy endings. Stosuy called the Trabing Fire “a disaster for animals” and estimated more livestock and pets died in that blaze than the two previous wildfires.
At one property, he encountered a barn of dead llamas and horses. At another home, the family’s two dogs lay dead inside the charred remains of their pen.
But there were heart-wrenching rescues as well, like that of Rosie, the golden retriever paralyzed with fear while her owner’s home went up in a burst of flames.
“Just knowing that I had the ability to do it … to rescue animals. If I hadn’t had done that, I don’t know how I could have lived with myself,” Stosuy said.
Months later, Stosuy submitted an article about the Trabing Fire to NACA News, the newsletter of the National Animal Control Association Board. In it, he writes “I feel fortunate that I was near the fire that day and able to respond so quickly. I don’t feel like a hero, even though people call me that. I was just in the right place at the right time, and I knew that the animals needed my help.”