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Woman donates thousands of pet oxygen masks to firefighters out West

When Debra Jo Chiapuzio learned that human oxygen masks aren’t very effective on animals because they’re designed to fit humans, she “just knew there had to be a better way.”

Debra Jo Chiapuzio at home earlier this year in Anaheim, Calif., with her dog, Emma Zen, and dozens of pet oxygen masks.
Debra Jo Chiapuzio at home earlier this year in Anaheim, Calif., with her dog, Emma Zen, and dozens of pet oxygen masks.Read moreDog is Good Photography

Debra Jo Chiapuzio adopted a puppy years ago that had been found during a California wildfire.

She learned that dogs are especially affected by fires: When flames break out, they will often run into a smoke-filled house, rather than away from it, because they want to return to their comfort zone.

Also, when firefighters rescue pets, they often must rely on oxygen masks that are designed to fit humans, not animals.

“I just knew there had to be a better way,” she said.

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Chiapuzio, who was working as a medical tattoo artist for burn victims, started looking on the internet and found a company that sells oxygen masks specially designed to fit pets' faces.

“I called my local fire department to see whether they had used them,” said Chiapuzio, 58, who lives in Anaheim, Calif. When she was told no, she suddenly had a new mission.

In 2011 she started the Emma Zen Foundation, a nonprofit named after her rescued Great Dane/Labrador, to supply fire companies with the pet oxygen-mask kits.

After she’d raised enough money to supply her local fire department with the kits, Chiapuzio began contacting other departments throughout California, she said.

Nine years later, Chiapuzio estimates her foundation has raised enough money to donate more than 7,500 kits containing three sizes of masks (small for puppies and kittens; medium and large for bigger dogs and cats, as well as the occasional potbellied pig) to about 650 fire departments. Most of them are in Western states, she said.

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“Last week, I was sitting in front of the TV watching news about the fires in California, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado, and I was relieved to see that every single fire department mentioned carried our equipment,” Chiapuzio said.

Although she hasn’t heard whether her foundation’s pet masks were used in the recent wildfires, she felt comforted knowing they were available.

Until the pandemic hit, Chiapuzio said she taught pet safety classes throughout Southern California to educate owners on how to react if their animals were poisoned, hit by a car, or suffered puncture wounds.

“I’d show them what to put in a pet first-aid kit and how to use those items, including how to check an animal’s breathing and deliver CPR if necessary,” she said.

Fire captains up and down the West Coast said they are grateful that Chiapuzio reached out to help them. Because of tight budgets, most fire departments aren’t able to purchase and replenish pet oxygen mask kits on their own, said Bill Metcalf, a recently retired San Diego fire chief.

Metcalf, 64, worked with Chiapuzio to ensure that all of the engines in San Diego County were outfitted with veterinarian-quality oxygen masks purchased by the Emma Zen Foundation from a national medical supply company.

“Our normal equipment isn’t well-suited to helping our animal friends when they’ve suffered trauma in a fire or vehicle crash,” he said.

Erika Skipper said the masks saved her puppy’s life.

The mother of five from Redlands came home from picking up her children at school one afternoon three years ago and found the bottom level of her house on fire.

“The dishwasher had exploded and the entire house was filled with black smoke,” said Skipper, 41. “My kids could only think of one thing: our new shih tzu puppy, Penelope.”

Skipper frantically dialed 911 and firefighters were at her house within minutes. They found Penelope in her kennel, submerged in rapidly rising water from the emergency sprinkler system, she said.

“She was barely breathing when she was brought out, but they revived her with one of their special pet masks, then transported her to the vet,” Skipper said.

“When we went to see her, the kids were thrilled,” she added. “They’d lost all their toys, and everything in the house was smoke-damaged. But we had our dog back. It was like a miracle.”

Her family now donates every year to the Emma Zen Foundation, hoping to give other pet owners a happy outcome, Skipper said.

“I know how traumatic it would have been to lose our dog that day,” she said. “Not every pet is as lucky.”

For Chiapuzio, who shares her home with Emma Zen, a potbellied pig named Baby Binks, a 200-pound tortoise, three parrots and a cat, stories like Skipper’s help keep her motivated.

“Just recently, a reptile store in the area burned down,” she said. “The fire department helped rescue the reptiles and I saw a picture of an iguana wearing an oxygen mask.”

“I was happy to see it was one of ours.”