From rescued to rescuer: Book tells dog's tale

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

Pearl, a black Labrador retriever, was initially an unlikely candidate for hero.

Now, there is a published book about her, thanks to the creative vision of Allyn Lee and the Bay Area second-grade class where Lee volunteers, teaching about animals and nature.

Three-year-old Pearl is now a Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency certified search and rescue dog who lives with her handler, Ron Hortenski, and works as part of the elite Los Angeles County Task Force 2.

The dynamic team recently traveled to Haiti after the earthquake in an attempt to rescue buried quake victims.

It's a long, long way from Quincy and Portola to Haiti. Like many stray dogs, Pearl ended up at Plumas County Animal Control - and she found herself there not once, but numerous times.

Pearl's owner wasn't home much, and the dog got bored. So, she'd escape - her nickname at the time was Houdini - have a bit of fun and inevitably end up in a cage at the local shelter.

Unlike most dogs who end up at shelters, however, she caught the eye of Jack Cumbra, who regularly went to Quincy to pick out dogs for High Sierra Animal Rescue in Portola.

Cumbra, who was trained to test dogs' behavior to see if they'd make good family pets, had passed Pearl by three or four times already.

He said she was just too hyper, "bouncing off the walls."

But that last time, Cumbra said he was struck by the fact that, even after months in the shelter, she still had her happy, hyper attitude intact. She seemed to love everyone. Nothing fazed her - not all the noise of barking dogs, all the time being shut in a kennel - nothing at all.

High Sierra's Penny Woodruff taught Cumbra the basics of testing a dog for search and rescue potential. He decided to give Pearl a try, and she did amazingly well. She had strong retrieval drive, and nothing (Cumbra banged two metal bowls together to jarring effect) distracted her from her mission.

So, Pearl returned to High Sierra, and Cumbra called Woodruff to do an in-depth evaluation.

Woodruff is a Bark Force member of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

The Bark Force arm of the SDF is charged with discovering potential search and rescue candidates, and Woodruff saw a lot of potential when she met the dog that came to be known as (Black) Pearl because of her shiny black coat.

Woodruff called Karen Klingberg, SDF's canine manager, to alert her to a possible search dog candidate.     "All she could think about was finding and retrieving the toy," said Klingberg, who drove 10 hours to evaluate Pearl.

Klingberg said watching Pearl's tireless retrieval of her toy, even when it ended up in thorny shrubs, made the long trip worth it. She had just the right attributes to become a great search and rescue dog.

"I think you might have found a winner," Cumbra recalled her saying.

Cumbra said Pearl brought home to him the lesson that so many of these supposed "pound dogs" are gems in the rough, with wonderful potential to be a great pet, therapy partner, search and rescue dog, and so much more.

For Pearl, being discovered for her "hero within" was the beginning of a new life. She said goodbye to Plumas County and traveled to Gilroy to start her formal search dog training.

Then she was assigned to Ron Hortenski at Los Angeles County Fire Station, 103 Pico Rivera. Anyone who has seen the pair work at demonstrations in Plumas County will attest to the incredibly strong bond between them.

Hortenski and Pearl belong to Los Angeles County Task Force 2 (CA-TF2), one of only two FEMA task forces that are certified to deploy anywhere in the U.S. and internationally, which is why this escape artist from Quincy eventually found herself as a rescuer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The story doesn't end there, however. In fact, that's where it begins.

Lee had written two previous books with Rancho Romero second-graders in Connie Forslind's class, where Lee has volunteered for the past 16 years.

Lee, formerly a zoo docent, teaches weekly animal-science lessons. She'd recently taught a lesson on wolves, and she was struck by news reports of rescue dogs on the CA-TF2 team that traveled to Haiti.

Lee has three rescue dogs of her own and looks for ways to impart to the kids the importance of saving a shelter dog when looking for a new family member, rather than buying an expensive dog from a breeder. Lee brings her dogs to the class and asks the kids, "Have you ever seen a more perfect dog?"

After doing some research on the Internet, Lee said she choose Pearl as the protagonist of her story, because Pearl, the rescued dog, was now doing the rescuing.

Lee phoned Hortenski, recently back from Haiti at that point, for information. Then, she wrote "A New Job for Pearl," which the Rancho Romero second-graders illustrated.

Publishing and printing costs for the book were donated, and the book turned out to be a fine quality publication.

Lee's group of second-graders wasn't done yet, however. The kids set a goal to raise $10,000 through the sale of their book, because that's how much money it takes to sponsor the training of a new search and rescue dog.

In the four months the class members have been selling the book, they've raised about $7,000 towards their goal. Pretty impressive considering they only had four-and-a-half weeks to sell the books before summer vacation.

To keep sales going over the summer, Lee said her sister-in-law set up a website for the book project,, that tells about Pearl and her book "A New Job For Pearl."

The website also has a gallery of photos, including pictures of the visit the class received from Hortenski and the real Pearl.

Lee said the students were beside themselves to finally meet their real life hero. They need to sell 300 more books to sponsor a new search dog.

If you want to help, there's a place on the website to order a copy of "A New Job For Pearl," something Plumas County residents should look forward to, since it's one of their own, albeit a 65-pound black Labrador retriever, who is the hero of this story.

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