Since I live in Colorado and do a lot of hiking with my dog, I’ve been following with great interest a developing news story here. Last month, a man named Anthony Ortolani took his German shepherd mix Missy for a hike up Mount Bierstadt, a challenging fourteener in Clear Creek County. High on the peak, Ortolani, his hiking partner, and Missy got caught in difficult terrain and Missy was unable to continue. Seeing no other option, Ortolani left Missy on the mountain. Once he was safely down, he called the Clear Creek sheriff, but was told that search and rescue didn’t go after animals; it wasn’t worth the risk to their personnel. So Ortolani did nothing more, assuming that Missy would die quickly from exposure.
A week later, a couple hiking in the same area came across a very much alive but hungry Missy. They couldn’t get her down themselves, but quickly organized a rescue. Nine days after being abandoned in a boulder field, Missy was brought to safety.
Ortolani was charged with animal cruelty for leaving Missy to die, but agreed to plead guilty to a minor ordinance violation and give custody of Missy to a new owner (one of her rescuers). In a news interview, an obviously distressed Ortolani told a reporter that he felt he had done everything he could to try to get Missy down, but that her paws were cut up and bleeding and she was uncooperative when he and his friend tried to carry her, and that the weather was deteriorating as they tried to coax her down. (Watch the news clip.)
Emotions have run high in social forums, with many people accusing Ortolani of abuse. Ortolani says that he has received hate mail from all over the world, including some death threats. Wilderness rescue is already a hot-button topic, without the added controversy of an abandoned dog. The website 14ers.com has a forum calls Pets on Peaks, which has had a number of emotional postings about Missy. Although I think he was a schmuck to leave Missy on the mountain, I almost feel sorry for Ortolani.
Going into the backcountry with our dogs is a wonderful way to spend time together, and I think it is safe to say that most dogs would be thrilled at the mention of a hike. But the lesson learned here is that we have to proceed with extra caution when we bring our dog and should assess terrain and conditions with canine needs in mind. Although dogs are athletically superior to humans, they cannot navigate the same terrain and can’t very easily travel over large rocks with four relatively short legs. As one vet warned us about our little pointer Maya, “She’ll run herself to death to keep up with you--literally. You have to be the one watching for signs of exhaustion or sore paws.” Here is a very informative posting about hiking with your dog, by a vet (from Pets on Peaks).
One important thing this case has done is raise awareness about the need for animal search and rescue. We have an organization in Boulder called Animal Help Now, which as far as I know is the only wilderness search and rescue for animals. The group has several priorities, including educating people about taking animals into the backcountry, and expanding into states bordering Colorado. Here is the website and their facebook page.
I can't post any pictures of Missy, since they are under copyright, but search under "Missy Mount Bierstadt" and you can find lots of images of her on the mountain, being carried down in a backpack, and off the mountain with her group of rescuers.