A search and rescue volunteer who was awarded an MBE for his dedication to duty has spoken about the moment his 14 years of service was almost scuppered before it began. Ex-soldier Kevin Saunders, from North Baddesley, Southampton, had spent a year training his treasured border collie Zak to become the youngest ever operational search and rescue dog with the Hampshire Search and Rescue Dogs unit.
However, Zak became injured and went lame in his left leg on one of his first assignments and was diagnosed with elbow dysplasia, a painful condition caused by an abnormal development of the bone.
Kevin said: “Zak had been deployed on a search in Dorset over some tough and unforgiving terrain and came back lame in his left paw and limping. I thought he may have fallen awkwardly or twisted his leg, so I let him rest and recuperate in the hope he would soon recover. Unfortunately, he didn’t recover and he was referred to Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists in Winchester, where their investigations revealed it was elbow dysplasia.
“I was devastated. He was only 18 months old but suddenly the outlook wasn’t great for him. It was so heart-rending, as it could have been career ending for Zak and for me.”
All was not lost, however, as Anderson Moores’ Head of Surgery James Grierson successfully intervened by carrying out an intricate operation to remedy the painful leg and ensure both Kevin and Zak’s vital search and rescue work could continue. Kevin and a rejuvenated Zak went on to forge a formidable partnership which helped save lives and rescue numerous vulnerable and at-risk people.
Kevin added: “James and the team at Anderson Moores really did come to the rescue when it all looked so bleak and I am so grateful to him.
“Search and Rescue is my passion and Zak had taken to it superbly, he really loved it, so it would have been heartbreaking for us to give it all up. Thanks to James, we went from strength to strength and had 11 operational years together and have been involved in around 300 searches across the area.
“Our focus was often searching for elderly people with dementia, people with mental health issues who could be looking to commit suicide or young children who have disappeared. In a lot of cases, there are very few clues as to where these people might be and some of them had gone to great lengths to make sure they couldn’t be found, so the searches were very extensive so it’s vital to work as a team.
“During his search and rescue career, Zak managed to find four missing people himself – and all four of them survived. He was also part of the team that tracked down countless others, although not always with happy endings.”
Zak’s now enjoying a happy retirement after his long and illustrious career, and Anderson Moores’ specialist James played a pivotal part in his longevity.
Kevin explained: “I was seriously thinking about retiring Zak because I didn’t want him to go on too long and pay any consequences. I asked James for his assessment and guidance. He said ‘Search and Rescue is his world and he loves it. Let him enjoy it while he’s still fit and able’.
“When Zak turned 10, I again thought about retiring him but then we went on a search during which he found an elderly gentleman who had gone missing from a care home. Zak found him tangled in barbed wire in a wooded area that was difficult to access. He definitely saved that man’s life. I was so proud of Zak and so happy that all thoughts of retirement were put on the back burner for a while.
“The following year, though, we were deployed on another search in Hampshire and although Zak was working really well, I could also see he was starting to slow up. I realised then that it was the right time to finish, when he was still capable and at his best. It was a tough decision and there were lots of tears but it was definitely the right decision.
“Now he’s an old dog who spends most of his time slumbering on the settee, but what a legacy!”
What a legacy indeed. Since retiring from his career, Zak has helped train Kevin’s new search and rescue dog Rusty to take over his loyal role with the Hampshire team and continue his vital lifesaving work.
Anderson Moores offers specialist care in anaesthesia and analgesia, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, diagnostic imaging, emergency and critical care, feline hyperthyroid clinic, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, orthopaedics and soft tissue surgery.