When law enforcement agencies conduct a search and rescue operation with a drone, it’s typically a missing person they’re looking for. But this past September, the police in Fremont County, Colorado went out in search of man’s best friend – and in short order, they found her.
The “her” was a golden retriever named Farrah that went missing after she fled the scene of a car accident in which she had been riding with a family member. The accident so spooked the dog that she disappeared into the wilderness and refused to return home. Various people spotted her over a three-month period but Farrah decided to brave the cold and the dark and did her best to find water and forage for food.
It turned out that Fremont police were conducting a training mission near the spot where Farrah had last been seen. The training session involved the testing of their new heat-sensing thermal imaging drone that can spot missing persons and fleeing criminal suspects even at night. So, anxious to try to help, the police launched their drone and amazingly, within just 10 minutes, they spotted Farrah wandering in the dense brush.
When Farrah’s owner Taylor Salazar was called to the scene, the dog quickly responded and the two were reunited. Farrah had lost half her body weight and her injured leg would have to be amputated but miraculously she’s still alive. Salazar calls the Fremont police “heroes” and says Farrah would never have survived without their timely intervention.
Farrah’s hardly the first animal to be rescued with a drone. In 2020, a videographer and drone owner read a social media posting about a dog lost for 10 days in the bitter cold in Colorado just before the season’s first snow. He launched his drone in the area and was able to spot the dog and helped the owner retrieve her. Similar stories have been reported for other lost pets, including cats, and farm animals like pigs, as well as endangered wildlife like koala bears also in need of rescue, sometimes on a mass scale.
Douglas Thron, an infrared drone pilot based in Oakland California started Project Thanks after he helped a disaster relief operation in the Bahamas after a devastating hurricane. He noticed dozens of animals wandering around in disarray and struck upon the idea of setting up a nonprofit to assist animal rescue operations worldwide. He’s traveled to Louisiana after massive floods and to southern California and Australia after destructive wildfires. He’s been on the road non-stop for several years. “I go where the animals need me the most,” he says.
Thron says he works side by side with relief personnel who, once notified of a missing animal’s location, move in to make the actual rescue. He’s made hundreds of rescues during his visits to disaster scenes and is always heartened by a successful outcome.
“It’s an incredible feeling to help reunite someone’s missing pet with their owner,” he says. “My hope is that these animal-saving drone operations will one day be as common as helicopters saving humans after a natural disaster.”
Thron’s pioneering work has inspired other drone enthusiasts to set up their own animal rescue operations, including Ryan Okrant, co-founder and executive director of Animal Survival and Safety Emergency Response Team (ASSERT) which rescues everything from pets and farm animals to rattlesnakes and bobcats. Okran recently started an animal rescue mission in Ukraine, where the devastating war has displaced not only millions of civilians but also untold numbers of animals.
“We’ve entered the age of drone animal rescue,” a banner headline on his group’s website declares.
Ryan Okrant, co-founder and executive director of Animal Survival & Safety Emergency Response Team (ASSERT), a drone animal-rescue organization.