When a sinkhole opens, lifesaving opportunities arise

When a sinkhole opens, lifesaving opportunities arise

By Emily V. Dubec-Hunter

Brandi Phillips of the UF VETS team, center, is shown with other team volunteers preparing to lift this blind mare, who was also pregnant, out of a sinkhole she had fallen into in Trenton.
Brandi Phillips of the UF VETS team, center, is shown with other team volunteers preparing to lift this blind mare, who was also pregnant, out of a sinkhole she had fallen into in Trenton. (Photo courtesy of Brandi Phillips)

It was the best case scenario for a worst-case situation. When Rheba Sheffield found her Quarter Horse named Fetty withers-deep in the ground, what she thought would be a complicated procedure was made simple when the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) team came to her rescue.

“I was very relieved, because Fetty, she’s my baby,” Sheffield said. “She’s blind, and we’ve been through a lot.”

Not only is Fetty blind, but when the sinkhole opened in the Trenton, Florida pasture, the mare was also pregnant.

“Those were some fun extra quirks we had to work around,” said Brandi Phillips, Animal Technical Rescue Branch Director at UF VETS. “But she was very well protected throughout the process.”

When she received the call for help from Sheffield’s veterinarian, Phillips had just finished teaching the second of a three-day operations-level animal technical rescue training course at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala. She offered the class of veterinarians and first responders a chance to experience a live rescue using the procedure they had just learned that day, and they jumped at the opportunity.

These rescues are fairly common in North Florida, which Phillips called a hotbed for sinkholes, but they can take hours to prepare for. Fortunately, thanks to good timing, Phillips already had the equipment and manpower in one place and ready to go.

“It was really great to have that many people on scene that were trained to know what to do,” Phillips said. “We usually need to be more creative and wear a few more hats to perform a rescue.”

At the pasture, the three instructors and six students put their hard hats on and got to work evaluating the scene. The hole was deep enough that the mare couldn’t climb out, but not deep enough that she injured herself falling into it.

“She barely knew she was having a bad day, I think,” said Phillips. “We believe that the hole opened up directly where she was standing and she just slowly sunk down into it.”

In fact, the mare was so calm she had continued grazing while stuck in the sinkhole. By the time the rescue crew arrived, she had cleared a whole patch of grass around the hole.

With Sheffield at her side for support, Fetty was sedated to keep her and the team safe as they employed a cantilever rescue technique. The low-tech process pulled the mare out of the hole and onto a glide with ropes, a sling and mechanical advantage systems. Phillips was impressed with how the students performed.

“I don’t think I could have had a better outcome or a better opportunity to get them real-life, hands-on experience,” Phillips said. “It’s never a no-risk rescue, but this horse was in a good condition.”

Indeed, she was. Fetty had no injuries or complications with her pregnancy as a result of the incident. She was treated by her veterinarian for mild dehydration and returned to pasture after the rescue, where Sheffield said she is sticking close to her horse buddies.

“They don’t let her wander far,” she said.

Sheffield said the UF VETS team also stayed in close contact. About a week after the incident, Phillips called her to check in on Fetty and the follow-up ultrasound.

“It was so nice to have people actually concerned about your animals because they are your kids,” Sheffield said. “They were genuinely concerned about Fetty and her health and were willing to make a difference. They couldn’t be more amazing.”


Editor’s Note: This story was reprinted from the UF Health Bridge internal website.