She stood at the edge of the rapidly flowing water, bulked up with a lifejacket and an equipment pack on her back. Her eyes were fixed on the furry bundle on the opposite bank that needed to be rescued.
It was still springtime, and that water looked mighty cold even though she had a wetsuit on, but Jeaneen Hercha, the Lawrence Humane Society's director of animal welfare and cruelty investigator, was ready. Reading the distance across and the speed of the water, she moved slightly upstream from her target, took a deep breath and dove in, powering herself against the current that kept pushing her downstream.
It seemed more like hours than minutes before she finally crawled out on the opposite bank. She approached the dog slowly, captured and muzzled it and, assisted by guide ropes from waiting team members, brought her captive safely back across.
When she pulled herself out of the water, her teammates congratulated her - she was the first woman in this session of the renowned Rescue 3 international training class to have succeeded.
For Hercha, however, this was all in a day's work. She was, after all, the woman who went to Greensburg after the tornado and was running around after spooked horses when she was eight months pregnant.
The river in this case was the Fury of the Nile ride at Worlds of Fun, and her rescued dog was a stuffed animal, bulldog-size. Nevertheless, the simulation disaster helped qualify her for technical animal rescue certification in a class that ran for three days at the end of April. She is now officially qualified to assist in Hurricane Katrina-type disasters.
"I was just determined to do it," Hercha said modestly. "It's not like I'm a really strong swimmer. It was a team effort."
It may have been a team effort, but don't question for a minute this athletic lady's contribution. She takes great pride in the animal training she has taken and the certifications she has received.
Hercha is one of the go-to people at the Lawrence Humane Society when the going gets tough, and she wanted this training badly enough that she spent personal time hunting down the equipment required for participation.
"I think it's just exciting to learn new things like this," she said. "I hope I don't ever have to use it, but I'm glad I know how."
Along with water rescue, Hercha said, the class also performed "rope work," in which they learned knots and harnessing that they applied to descending steep, uneven terrain for other types of rescues. This prepared class members for work in hilly or mountainous regions.
The training even included scenarios for larger animals. Hercha said the instructors, who work closely with the Humane Society of the U.S. and from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also taught class members how they might remove panicked horses trapped in barns.
Hercha's most recent certification is just one of many that she has acquired through the years, and it means that now the shelter has two people certified for water rescue. Midge Grinstead, the executive director, is also certified for water rescue, and between them, they bring certification at all three levels of animal cruelty rescue, which is taught at the Law Enforcement and Training Institute in Columbia, Mo. Hercha is certified for levels 1 and 3, and Grinstead has levels 1 and 2.
Ideally, the board of directors would like to have other staff members certified for cruelty and neglect and rescue operations.
"It's not a one-person job," Hercha said. This fact becomes all too apparent in the monthly report numbers that show as many as 50 or 60 cruelty and neglect calls are received each month by the shelter. Such calls are not easy, and they take a great deal of staff time.
More often than not, follow-up on reports of extreme cruelty, dog fighting and cock fighting leads our investigators into threatening situations. Animal abuse is strongly linked statistically with family abuse, drug sales and illegal weapons possessions. Drug houses and other illicit operations usually keep vicious dogs to deter people from coming near the facilities, and these animals are mistreated and underfed to keep them vicious.
Reports of cruelty and neglect keep our staff returning to many of the same houses over and over.
"We've done everything we can to make the laws better," Grinstead has often said, "but we can only be as strong in prosecuting these people as our laws allow us to be."