A Policeman’s Lot 28….”Never work with animals”

The River Thames can be a very dangerous place….And that is so whether you have two legs or four…..In my 17 years working as a police officer on the river I had several encounters with animals and I will recount a few of them here….Some are amusing….One (at least) left me shaking my head in disbelief….Not at the animals concerned….But at the incredible stupidity of the owners.

The first two animal related events occurred not long after I had finished my probationary year….Our launch was patrolling the river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge on a warm weekend afternoon….As we approached Tower Bridge we saw a large object seem to fall into the river from the central arch….It happened in a fraction of a second and none of us were sure what exactly the object was…..Fortunately there were no boats going through the bridge at the time and the object fell directly into the water….Our helmsman drove towards the splash and suddenly saw the object rise to the surface of the water and begin to swim up river with the flooding tide…..It soon became obvious that the ‘Object’ was a rather large Doberman type dog….”OK….We will treat it as a normal recovery from the water….BUT we will have to physically lift the dog into the boat…..and it may be panicking….Rob….Have you dealt with an animal rescue before?”

I knew exactly what was coming “So I’m going to be the rescuing officer then?”

“Yes, spot on….My advice is grab it by the collar, if it has one and we will try and bring it in without anyone getting bitten.”

Fortunately the dog did not seem keen to avoid being rescued and as we called and encouraged it, it swam towards the boat…..I reached over the side, took hold of his substantial collar and tried to heave him into the boat….But it was immediately clear that I would need some assistance to bring a large, wet, squirming and wriggling dog out of the water and into the boat…..Fortunately again the dog did not seem to be frightened or overly nervous and with all three of us grabbing a bit we managed to wrestle him aboard…..Once the dog was safe the investigation began into how he ended up in the water…..We moored the launch at Tower Pier and took the dog ashore…..We were approached by a family group who were VERY grateful that we had managed to rescue their pet…..Our first question was “How did your dog get over the parapet?”…..Sadly, it occurred to all of us that the owners might possibly have been trying to dispose of an unwanted pet….However, the truth turned out to be far less awful….It seems the family had been on a family day out and their boisterous hound (which had not been on a lead) decided to simply bound over the parapet not realising that it was a much bigger (and wetter) drop on the other side.

Once we were satisfied that the family were NOT trying to dispose of their dog we were pleased to reunite them once more…..And the dog did not seem in any way upset to be returned to them…..We sent them on their way with a strong reminder that dogs should be kept on a lead in built up areas.

My second animal encounter came very soon after the first…..This time we were called away from the river to a part of the Grand Union Canal…..A family out walking had discovered a small and bedraggled Jack Russell terrier which appeared to be trapped on a shallow bit of the canal where there was no easy access.

We arrived in a van that we used for call outs…. We tried calling and encouraging the small dog but it simply ignored us and just looked thoroughly miserable…..It was decided that we would inflate our rubber dinghy and use that to get across to where the dog was stranded….We both put on waders and ventured onto the water…..I was still buoyed with success after my first doggy rescue and if I can successfully rescue a large Doberman, what problems could a small Jack Russell possibly pose?

As we reached the shallow area I stepped out of the dinghy and slowly approached the animal which still showed little interest in our presence…..I stretched out my hand palm up….And spoke quietly to it…..Still no interest….So I reached forward to gently pick up the small dog…..Which suddenly displayed a marked aversion to being touched by me…..There was a brief flurry of fur and a flash of sharp teeth and I withdrew my painful and now bleeding hand…..”Any suggestions?” I called to my colleague in the dinghy.

“We could call a dog handler?” He suggested….But that could take ages.

I’m going to try and wrap him in my anorak and see if that works…..I approached once again…..Again he ignored me….I reached out with my left hand and as he moved to snap me, I covered the small dog with my anorak and bundled him up.

We took him straight to a the animal hospital in North London that we usually use but unfortunately the vet said he was to ill to save and he had to be put down to prevent him suffering any further distress…..But that was not the end of me using the medical services that day. The vet saw my bleeding hand and recommended me to attend hospital for a tetanus jab as the bite.

Many people imagine that the Thames is too polluted to sustain much life but in fact The Thames is one of the cleanest industrial rivers in Europe and when I worked there it was estimated there were over 130 different species of fish living in the river….Even salmon were returning to the upper reaches.

I have regularly seen seals in the river and there is even a large seal that lives full time in the West India Dock. It has become something of a tourist attraction and is regularly seen being fed by the workers at Billingsgate Fish Market.

Cetaceans (dolphins and whales) always attract public and media attention when they venture up the river…..However their stories seldom end well….If a dolphin or whale swims into the river there is normally something wrong with it (possibly it’s navigation system may be malfunctioning) and it usually ends up dying in the river….Members of the family of Cetaceans are known as ‘Royal Fish’ (even though they are technically mammals)….’Royal Fish’ are historically the property of the Crown….Whenever one dies in British Waters the body will be taken for an autopsy to be performed in order that scientists may better understand their behaviour.

On one occasion whilst out on patrol over a weekend. We were heading down river in the Hammersmith area. There we saw a man swimming in the river around a rowing club pontoon….Swimming in the river is ALWAYS dangerous due to currents and to the coldness of the water….On investigation we saw that the man’s female companion, was extremely upset….It seems that she had been standing on the up river end of the pontoon and throwing a tennis ball into the river for her small dog to swim after and retrieve…..She had done this as the tide was coming in and the ball was being taken away from the pontoon……Unfortunately she did not notice that the tide had turned and that the ball was no longer being taken AWAY from the pier…..It was now being taken back towards the pier on an ebb tide…..and instead of being able to climb out of the river onto the pontoon….Her small dog was swept under the pontoon…..The woman was distraught and had persuaded her husband/boyfriend to try diving UNDER the pontoon in an attempt to rescue her dog!

We ordered the man out of the water immediately and explained to the woman that her dog by now had undoubtedly drowned and that if he persisted in his noble but foolish efforts to assist the dog…..The same fate would doubtless befall her companion.

Perhaps the most unusual animal story occurred on a day shift when I was stationed at Waterloo Pier Police Station which is now the Central London HQ for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution……This was after the craze that followed the American fantasy TV cartoon series ‘The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’…..As a result of this series a great many children decided to keep terrapins as pets in their garden ponds…..Of course, many did not realise terrapins and turtles don’t actually make very good pets if you don’t know how to care from them properly and as a result, a large number of these animals were released into rivers lakes and ponds around the country…..Only the previous day we had notice some small terrapins swimming quite happily in the river in Central London…..Yet more evidence of the large diversity of life that exists in London’s river.

At Waterloo Pier I took a call from call over the Marine RT set from a local pleasure boat owner with whom we were on friendly terms…..He wanted to report that he had spotted a turtle in the river at across the river from the Tower of London…..I advised him that it was probably a terrapin…..But he insisted it was too large to be a terrapin.

“How big is this animal then?”

“It’s bigger than the seat of a bar stool….And it’s drawing quite a crowd of onlookers too!”

My colleague Steve and I took one of the single engined boats and made our way down to City Festival Pier where we saw a considerable crowd had gathered on the pavement….There was lots of pointing into the water and as we manoeuvred our launch towards the river wall we saw a turtle with a shell approximately 18 inches in diameter grazing contentedly on the weed that grew on the river wall.

Steve brought the boat alongside the animal and I reached over the side of the launch….took hold of the shell and tried to lift the creature out of the water…..But it was far too heavy…..Next idea was to use the large bucket that we kept on the boat to haul it out…..But the turtle was far too big for the bucket…..It was a bit like an iceberg…..Much bigger under the water than it was on top!

Eventually it was decided to elicit the help of the North London Animal Hospital and after about 45 minutes two ladies from the hospital duly arrived…..We explained the situation to them and they came out on the boat to look at our turtle which was still happily grazing on the weed……By now the crowds had grown and the excitement grew further when an ITN News reporter and camera crew turned up.

When the ladies from the Animal Hospital saw the turtle for the first time one of them said…..”How did you say you tried to get it out?”

“I tried first to lift it out by hand”

“Really? You probably didn’t want to do that…..What we have here is an ‘Alligator Snapping Turtle’….And you could easily have lost a finger or two.”

“Oh, I see”

The ladies then assembled a large net attached to a long pole…..They managed to catch the turtle and it took all of us to lift the reptile out of the river and into our launch…”Don’t go too close to it though, gents….It’s about the biggest I’ve seen.”

Eventually the animal was taken off the launch and onto the pier where the news crew were eager for pictures and an interview with the ladies from the animal hospital….The lady in charge explained how such animals were bought when small for garden ponds…..but when they outgrew the ponds (and ate everything else in the pond) they were dumped…..They also explained how strong and aggressive the turtles could be…..But the news reporter did not seem particularly impressed…..UNTIL the hospital lady turned the net around and put the wooden handle in front of the turtle who unceremoniously bit off the end of the wooden pole with one big chomp!

“Oh My! Said the reporter!

The turtle was soon loaded into their van and removed to the hospital to be assessed…..It was eventually christened “Jaws” and re-homed in a reptile centre and even became something of a TV celebrity on a programme called ‘Animal Hospital’

Some years later I watched a programme that assessed the varying strengths of bites in the animal world and the Alligator Snapping Turtle came very near the top of the list along with hyenas, crocodiles and Great White Sharks…..I was certainly pleased that I kept my fingers well away from it’s head!

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  1. We have alligator snappers here in South USA. I’m surprised the ladies did not tell you about the fish lure on their tongues a feathery like feature used in the turtle’s aid in trapping fish into their mouths. It is sad about the dog that was carried in a rip tide under the pontoon boat.

    1. The dog under the pontoon incident was the one I mentioned at the beginning where the incompetence of the owners has to be questioned…..People have to be aware that water is a dangerous environment…..London has had its first few sunny days of summer and already lives have been lost because of foolish behaviour born of ignorance…..And parents HAVE to know where their kids are and what they are doing…..Its no use blaming everyone else when the kids are dead!

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