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New Humane Society award honors human heroes

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A memorial for Tommy Monahan, the Staten Island boy who died trying to save his pets from a fire. (Photo by Patrick Kwan/Courtesy of The Humane Society of the United States)

It was a cold morning in New Auburn, Wis., just a few days before Christmas, and a young deer was in trouble. The speckled fawn had got itself stranded in the middle of Sand Lake, its matchstick legs slipping and sliding on the ice, unable to get himself to the snow-covered shore.

David Cook, 57, saw the desperate situation from a picture window in his house on the edge of the lake and raced out in his heavy winter coat and ice cleats to help the frightened animal, which had ice and snow all over its face and fur. “I think he thought I was going to eat it,” Cook said, who works as an emergency room doctor.

To calm the deer he scratched it around the ears, a trick he’d learned from years as a dog owner, and then gently pushed it along the ice until the petrified animal could gain purchase on the rough snow at the edge of the lake. Soon, the deer was up and sprinting into the woods. “I told it to stay on the snow and be careful,” Cook said.

For his extra kindness, Cook was presented last December with the Circle of Compassion award by the Humane Society of United States. Every month, the society combs through media stories and referrals from local shelters looking for people who take time out of their lives to aid animals.

“He followed his strong urge to help and saved an animal,” said Colin Berry, director of the program for the society, which has given out awards to 15 people since it was started in October. (The other national humane group, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also presents an award, but only to animal-helping public officials, not to private citizens.)

“Some people may not realize that wild animals have as strong a will to live as the rest of us," Berry said. "And Mr. Cook realized that the deer was struggling to live.” He was quick to add, however, that the society cautions people against approaching wild animals and, instead, urges them to call local authorities if they see an animal in trouble.

In Cook’s case, the animal’s life wasn’t in danger; in other cases an animal may have died had someone not intervened. Pamela Klak, 46, for instance, was enjoying an afternoon visit with a friend in her hometown of Milwaukee when the woman’s daughters burst in and said that two neighborhood boys were in the process of hanging a kitten from a tree.

Klak was up and out the door in seconds. Outside, she saw a black and orange kitten suspended with a rope around its neck while the boys stood laughing. Klak, a lab technician, quickly untied the rope and cradled the eight-week-old kitten in her arms, while the boys scurried out of sight. “I didn’t have to think about it; it was a natural reaction,” Klak said.

The case of the tortured kitten is not such a rare occurrence. Cruelty toward animals is common, especially among young children, according to Mary Lou Randour, a Washington, D.C., psychologist who studies animal abuse at the society. There are many reasons for this, Randour said. “It could be because the child has witnessed violence in the family or neighborhood, or that some of the children are under influence of peers.”

To be sure, there are probably as many children who go out of their way to help animals as to hurt them. One of these was 9-year-old Tommy Monahan, of Staten Island, N.Y. Last December, his family's house caught fire, and Tommy ran back into the burning building to save his lizard and his Yorkshire terrier, Sophie.

While his mother and sister looked on, horrified, Tommy’s father, Thomas, climbed a ladder, according to the local paper, and tried to break a second floor window to get him out. “Tommy, come to the window! Come to the window!” he cried. He couldn’t reach the child in time, and, when firefighters finally got into the house, they found the boy unconscious and in a state of cardiac arrest. Taken to the local hospital, Tommy was pronounced dead several hours later.

“Everyone knew him as a boy who loved animals,” said Patrick Kwan, the New York State director of the Humane Society, who presented the posthumous award to Tommy’s family. “He used to collect his birthday and Christmas money and donate it to local animal charities.”

On the other occasions the award has been bestowed under much happier circumstances. On a Sunday morning last January, David Edwards of Eugene, Ore., woke up and saw that his neighbor's house was burning. Through the smoke and fire he heard an animal's cry coming from the house.

“I couldn’t do anything. I felt so helpless,” Edwards told a local news station. But then something gripped him, and he ran impulsively inside the building, scooped up an unconscious cat and carried it outside. Placing his own mouth around the cat’s tiny jaw, he proceeded to give the animal five minutes of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, whereupon the creature regained consciousness. For his life-saving act, Edwards was given the Circle of Compassion Award #12.

E-mail: yb2183@columbia.edu