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A matter of life and breath

Maine ACO leads the charge for pet oxygen masks

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2012

Bobby Silcott and his dog Elvis, a basset hound with a little beagle in him, demonstrate one of the pet oxygen masks that Silcott is supplying to fire and rescue departments throughout Maine. Looking on is Silcott’s lemon-drop beagle, Priscilla.

Pets in Maine can breathe a little easier— literally—knowing that Bobby Silcott is on the case.

Silcott, 50, works as an animal control officer for six towns in southwestern Maine, and also serves as a volunteer firefighter/ emergency medical technician in Naples, his hometown. Two and a half years ago he combined those interests by founding the Maine POM Project, which aims to equip fire departments and rescue organizations throughout the state with oxygen masks for pets. They come in three sizes and fit “anything from a gerbil up to a Great Dane,” he says. Silcott teaches first aid classes to raise money to help pay for the masks; he also takes donations at themainepomproject.org, and promotes the program through a Facebook page.

A former truck driver, Silcott became an ACO about six years ago, after his bad back made driving difficult. His work with animals includes serving on the boards of the Harvest Hills Animal Shelter and the Maine Federation of Humane Societies, and developing a dog park on 10 acres donated by the town of Naples. His own menagerie of adopted animals includes Angela the cat and two dogs, Elvis and Priscilla.

In the edited interview below, Silcott discusses his work with Animal Sheltering associate editor James Hettinger.

Animal Sheltering: Tell us about your project to supply emergency personnel with pet oxygen masks.

Bobby Silcott: In May of 2009, I started teaching Red Cross-certified dog or cat first aid/CPR classes. I’d known about these masks for a couple years before that, but my problem was I had no money. They cost 75 bucks a set. After taking the class, it just occurred to me that this is the way that I can raise money, so I got certified to teach the classes. And since May of 2009, we’ve been able to present 162 sets of these pet oxygen masks completely free of charge to local fire and rescue departments. Ultimately, the goal is to equip the entire state of Maine.

According to the ASPCA, anywhere from 40,000 to 150,000 pets perish every year from smoke inhalation alone. I don’t have the numbers here in Maine, but I know if you save one animal, it means the world to that family.

I’ve witnessed that firsthand. Ironically enough, one of our volunteer firefighter’s house was struck by lightning. Actually, it struck a tree in the backyard. And it was really interesting to see somebody who’s been a volunteer firefighter for over 20 years suddenly become the victim. He was no different than any other victim. His main concern was where was his cat, Spike.

Deputy chief [Chris] Burnham found the cat. It was behind the wood stove, unconscious, not breathing. Brought it out to me, and 20 minutes later I was able to give it back to the owner, and you would think nothing even happened to it. I believe a big part of that is those pet oxygen masks, because they’re designed to fit [the animals].

When I’m dead and gone, hopefully these things are still around, saving animals. When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty heavy.

What advice would you give a young person thinking of entering the field?

I found out long ago—and actually, a therapist told me this—that no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to rationalize irrational thinking. And that simple statement has saved me a lot of grief, because when I first got into this, I was constantly asking myself, “Why? How? There’s no way that someone could not see that that is wrong.” The fact is, they’re not thinking rationally. They’re not looking at it on the same level you are.

If you weren’t an ACO , is there anything else you’d want to do?

Probably drive a tractor trailer again over the road. That was a job I really thoroughly enjoyed. I looked at myself as a paid tourist when I was doing that.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.