Fla. fire department responds to critter calls

Last year, the Venom One team responded to over 800 calls dealing with snake bites, lizards and large animal rescues

By Carli Teproff
The Miami Herald

MIAMI — Teresita Peralta tried to sleep. But there was that chirping. Again and again.

“They cried all night,” Peralta said of the baby sparrows that hatched in her bathroom’s exhaust fan.

She tried calling her building manager. She was told no help until after the weekend. Two days away? Maddening. Chirp-chirp-chirp!

Sanity in the balance, she called the fire department. And Lt. Lisa Wood came to the rescue.

The call came in as “birds in a pipe.” This was a new one for Wood. She’s had calls for cats stuck in cars. A snake coiled in a television. And a monkey on the run. Never this.

But Wood, one of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department’s three-member Venom Response Team — also known as Venom One — knows how to handle animals (all of them, despite the name of her unit). She also knows how to improvise and figure things out as she goes.

The venom unit that is often called when no one knows what else to do when it comes to animals in South Florida.

“People have to understand that all of South Florida, unless you are on the beach, was built on swamp,” Wood said. “Animals adapt to us being there, but they are still here and really the best defense is to learn to coexist with them.”

Last year, the unit handled more than 800 calls — snake bites, cats stuck in a fence, ducks trapped in a drain. Venom One often deals with exotic animals that have made their way to South Florida, including the recent influx of Tegu lizards. The team also helps out on large-animal rescues when they wedge into places they shouldn’t be.

In April, a horse fell into a South Miami-Dade canal after getting spooked by a black tarp. The canal near Southwest 167th Avenue and 195th Street was deep and the horse was exhausted.

Venom One member Lt. Scott Mullin was called out to help get the animal out of the water. His training paid off, and Mullin help lead the horse from water.

“Most people think of Miami as a concrete jungle, but there are still lots of rural areas where there are farms, horses and cows,” Mullin said.

For Mullin, it’s “the best job in the world.”

As a kid growing up in South Florida, Mullin was always outside, camping, exploring, interacting with animals. When he realized he could combine his love for animals and passion for helping people, he found the perfect job in Venom One.

The 24-hour shift for Venom One begins at 7 a.m. like any other Miami-Dade firefighter. When an animal call comes in, dispatch reaches the on-duty team member.

“There’s days where it’s completely nonstop,” Mullin said.

He has seen it all, like the teen girl with a python in her toilet.

“I can’t make these things up,” he said.

Mullin said the snake was a pet that got loose and managed to slither into a pipe. The pipe led to another apartment. That led to the teen’s middle-of-the-night terror. Mullin managed to capture the snake and return it to its owner.

Earlier this year, he captured a porcupine in a mall parking lot.

While all kinds of animals keep the team busy, treating snake bites is a priority. Venom One is the first unit called when someone is bitten by a snake — which is how the unit got its start.

In 1998, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue became the first in the country to house a fire department-based antivenin bank that covers most of the world’s poisonous snakes. Capt. Al Cruz started the unit — and ran it alone — because of the growing number of people bitten by poisonous snakes.

Vials of antivenin fill a fridge at the Tamiami fire station. If a bite call comes in, the team is notified. The cost for the vials are covered by the hospitals that need them.

Recently, the team’s Capt. Jeff Fobb got a call for a 6-year-old in Broward being bitten on the by a water moccassin.

“She got lucky,” he said. “We were able to treat it with minimal damage.”

Since its inception, the unit has handled more than 1,400 snake bites. The team gained national attention and became reality stars when it was featured in the Animal Planet’s “Swamp Wars,” a series about their day-to-day duties. One episode features Wood trying to capture a Nile monitor lizard in a park bathroom.

For Wood, working with animals is natural. She worked as a veterinary technician before joining the fire department. Becoming a member of Venom One was a perfect fit, she said.

She always gets a kick out of the reactions from people when she responds to capture a “scary” animal by herself. While she has had to wrestle snakes and dangerous lizards, it’s sometimes the more common animals that give her a challenge.

Like birds in a pipe.

When she gets to the apartment, Teresita Peralta looks relieved. Wood carefully positions herself on the only thing she can — the toilet. She unscrews the fan and tries to reach the birds.

First she gets one. Then another.

“Do you have a box,” she asks.

Peralta cheers: “Bravo, Bravo!”

After the baby sparrows are placed safely in a box, Wood writes a note to Peralta’s building manager. There needs to be a screen blocking the fan so that birds can’t get in. Part of her job is education.

As Wood walks out, carrying the box of birds, she smiles. The baby birds — which couldn’t yet fly — are on there way to a wildlife rehab center to get a second chance.

“That was a first,” she says.

And then Wood flies back to her fire station to await the next call.

Copyright 2016 Miami Herald

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