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Recent North Coast drownings follow attempted rescues of pets from ocean

Trina Vadon runs Duke along the beach at North Salmon Creek Beach, north of Bodega Bay, on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.

(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 3:44 p.m.

Peter Glazer glanced at the waves pounding Blind Beach near Jenner on Thursday and thought better of letting his Labradoodle off leash to frolic in the water.

It probably was a wise decision. Since 2008, at least seven people have drowned off Northern California's coast after a split-second decision was made to attempt to rescue a pet swept away by the unforgiving sea.

The sad irony is that in most cases, dogs survive ordeals that end up claiming the lives of their masters. Of the seven deaths on the North Coast, only one dog, a pug, did not survive the incident.

The latest tragedy unfolded Tuesday — New Year's Day — when 59-year-old Charlie Quaid of Richmond drowned at Point Reyes National Seashore after Quaid's wife and the couple's pit bull were swept up in the waves.

Such tragedies beg the question: is attempting to save a dog's life ever worth risking your own?

Even those who say it is not probably haven't faced that heart-stopping moment when a beloved pet is suddenly in harm's way, requiring its owner to act or watch helplessly.

Glazer, who was visiting Blind Beach from Oakland, said he understands why someone would act to save a pet in distress.

“It's really hard to watch a dog in danger,” he said.

The Northern California coast poses many dangers for dogs and their owners. Even at beaches where the surf appears calm, hidden riptides or steep underwater drop-offs represent a risk to anyone who ventures into the icy-cold water without proper attire and advanced swimming skills.

By law, dogs are not allowed off leash at any beach on the Sonoma County coast and in several places dogs are banned outright to protect sensitive wildlife or vegetation.

The law is widely flouted, however, said Jeremy Stinson, a supervising ranger with the state Parks Department.

“It's one of the most common contacts we make on the coast,” Stinson said.

Stinson advises people to never go into the surf to attempt a water rescue, whether it's to save a dog or another person. But as the owner of a husky-shepherd mix named Rocky, Stinson acknowledged how difficult it can be to follow that advice.

“That's really easy for me to say from the safety of my office, but it is just so common to have tragedies unfold from a rescue attempt,” he said.

Two women have died off Portuguese Beach in Sonoma County since 2008 after they attempted to rescue their dogs. A third woman drowned that year after she went after her dog off Gualala Beach.

On Nov. 24, three members of a Eureka family drowned at Big Lagoon in Humboldt County after one of them tried to save the family dog from drowning.

Accounts of the events that led up to Quaid's death Tuesday at North Beach in Marin County differ.

Quaid was the chief financial officer of a San Francisco health care consulting firm and also an avid sailor.

His wife, Lisa, said in a brief interview Friday that she was walking on the beach with Clive, the pit bull they adopted from a rescue agency, when the pair were swept up by a “sneaker wave.”

“After that I can't tell you what happened,” she said.

On the day of the tragedy, Lisa Quaid told a Marin County firefighter and a paramedic that the dog had gone into the water first and that she then went in after it, followed by her husband.

“He (the dog) scampered into the water and pretty early on she realized he was going to have some difficulty,” said Marin County Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Giannini, who was not present at the scene but relayed details of the conversation.

Giannini said a bystander rescued Lisa Quaid, who was able to grab Clive's leash and pull him to safety.

Charlie Quaid by then was being pulled farther out to sea. Giannini said witnesses saw him bobbing on the surface for about 15 minutes before he vanished. His body was recovered about four hours after he went into the water.

Quaid and his wife adopted Clive after meeting the dog for the first time in June at an open house hosted by BAD RAP, a Bay Area education and advocacy group for people who are interested in pit bulls.

The 2-year-old dog's sweet and gentle nature was a match with Charlie Quaid's personality, said Donna Reynolds, the group's executive director.

“It was kismet,” she said.

Reynolds called Quaid a “hero” for trying to save the dog, if in fact that's what he was doing.

“When you see a dog suffering, you can't automatically cut off your emotions and your instincts and say, ‘Gosh, I'm not going to put myself at risk.' I think what he did was instinctive,” Reynolds said.

Ann Madden's death in 2008 off Portuguese Beach highlighted that even for experienced swimmers — the 19-year-old Petaluma woman was trained as a member of the Coast Guard in search and rescue — braving the North Coast's icy waters in an attempt to save a dog is fraught with risk.

The fact people still make the effort speaks to the powerful bonds that exist between humans and dogs, and also the instinct and adrenaline that kicks in when witnessing a beloved pet in danger.

“I think the connection is so deep that you can't judge someone who does it,” said Susan Simons, coordinator of the Petaluma Animal Shelter's spay and neuter clinics.

Walking his two basenjis at Blind Beach on Thursday, Alex Werner of Santa Clara acknowledged loving his dogs so much that he would take risks “you would think excessive.”

That did not include on this day allowing the dogs off leash to play in the surf.

At North Salmon Creek Beach, Trina Vadon allowed her boyfriend's blue-heeler border collie, Duke, to run free despite the angry surf and prohibitions on dogs at that location.

Vadon said the decision whether to let the dog loose came down to knowing the ocean's conditions and whether if something goes wrong “the risk is worth the gain.”

Stinson said people should contact authorities for help instead of attempting their own water rescue. He said cell service has improved on the Sonoma Coast from Bodega Bay to Jenner and that a call box was installed at Portuguese Beach.

State parks has lifeguards but because of budget cuts they aren't on duty at all times. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and Coast Guard also are available to help.

Simons, who also is the former director of Pets Lifeline in Sonoma County, surmised that most dogs survive these incidents because they don't panic as humans do.

“I think the dogs roll with it, don't panic and eventually roll out of it,” she said.

Dogs may also be better able to withstand the hypothermic conditions, be more buoyant or just be better swimmers.

Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society, said in light of recent tragedies people “need to take a step back” and reflect on their actions because “life is irreplaceable.”

Icard said she would not personally go into the ocean after a dog unless she had skills in search and rescue.

But she acknowledged that's easier said than done.

Still, “we probably wouldn't think twice about going in there,” she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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