Animal rescuer who uses drones to find animals after natural disasters says it’s the ‘look on an animal’s face’ that keeps him going

·3 min read

Animal rescuer and cinematographer Douglas Thron’s passion for animals began when he was a little kid. “I started rescuing orphaned baby animals,” Thron tells Yahoo Life. “And I wanted to be a wildlife cinematographer.”

When Thron grew up, he did just that, working as a cinematographer for shows like Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” filming the Great White sharks off the coast of Santa Cruz, Calif., along with doing aerial cinematography for NatGeo. But Thron says it was the Paradise fire in California in 2018 that “pushed” him to do animal rescue activism work, putting his aerial cinematography skills to good use.

At the time, Thron was working as a cinematographer filming a man who was rescuing cats after the fire using an infrared handheld camera. The camera uses heat to detect the animals at night. Thron and the man talked about how incredible it would be to put one on a drone to detect animals more easily. “The animal’s body temperature will glow on the screen and you can pick them out amongst the rubble,” explains Thron.

Cinematographer Douglas Thron rescues animals after natural disasters using an infrared drone. (Photo: CuriosityStream)
Cinematographer Douglas Thron rescues animals after natural disasters using an infrared drone. (Photo: CuriosityStream)

He explains that flying a drone over a big disaster gives you “a real feel for how extensive the disaster is,” adding: “You definitely get inspired to drop everything to help as much as possible. The feeling I get when I rescue an animal is most definitely an incredible feeling, so it just keeps me going.”

The first animal Thron ever rescued was a dog in the Bahamas after a category 5 hurricane hit, which “wiped out hundreds of houses,” he says. Thron tested out putting an infrared scope on a drone and found the dog “literally in the middle of the giant debris pile where hundreds of houses had been smashed,” he says. “I flew the drone over and I found him. I was able to rescue him. And nobody claimed him after 30 days so I adopted him, and he’s a super wonderful dog.”

Thron with a koala rescued after the devastating fires in Australia in 2020. (Photo: CuriosityStream)
Thron with a koala rescued after the devastating fires in Australia in 2020. (Photo: CuriosityStream)

Thron adds that he’s basically been “going non-stop since then.” His TV show, Doug to the Rescue, shows some of his heartwarming animal rescues, including after Hurricane Laura in Louisiana in 2020 and after fires in Northern California and Oregon. Thron also helped rescue koalas after fires ravaged parts of Australia in 2020, using infrared-equipped drones for the first time there to help locate the animals.

“The drone really shaves off critical time so that the really badly hurt animals are able to be rescued,” Thron says. Once the infrared scope pics up the “heat signature of an animal,” Thron turns a spotlight on the animal and zooms in on it, so he and the rescue crews can go save the animal.

Thron’s dream is to one day have an animal rescue ranch where he can train others on flying drones and to make infrared drones "as popular for rescuing animals as helicopters are for rescuing people after a disaster,” he says.

Thron with a rescue puppy. (Photo: CuriosityStream)
Thron with a rescue puppy. (Photo: CuriosityStream)

The work isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding. Thron shares that the “look on an animal’s face” keeps him going. “They need our help,” he says. Rescuing animals has led to many touching moments, including reuniting people with their beloved lost pets, or “when we’re rescuing animals after fires and their bodies are badly burned and then you see later on in the episode cats and dogs all fat and happy and sitting under Christmas trees and stuff like that,” he says, cracking a smile.

It’s the technology, as well as Thron’s dedication, that has made all of the difference. “It blows me away how many more animals we’re able to save now,” Thron says, “and how much faster we can save them before they might pass away after a disaster.”

Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.

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