Drone Pilot Travels the Globe to Rescue Animal Victims of War and Disaster

After the first bombings in Russia’s war on Ukraine, 52-year-old pet rescuer Doug Thron went in with his team to locate orphaned pets from the attacks. He used an infrared drone to locate the animals by body heat. Then, in one burned-out apartment building, he made a discovery: a mother cat and four kittens.

“The first day we were there, we were looking for animals and went up into an eight-story building that was bombed by the Russians,” Thron said. The building was scarred with a giant crater from the bomb right in the middle of it. “I’m pretty sure it killed everybody in there,” he said.

Amid the rubble, though, on the eighth floor, they spotted a cat who appeared to have recently given birth. Thron and his fellow rescuers tried to catch her, but she scurried away under some appliances in a kitchen.

“We set a live trap to catch her, caught her, and noticed there was a little tiny kitten sitting on top of the trap.” They tried to catch the kitten, and it also ran away under some cabinets. Thron couldn’t set a trap for the kitten, because it was too lightweight to trigger it. But in the evening, he was able to catch it. At that point, the group set up cameras to see if more kittens were lurking around.

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“Sure enough, we saw three other kittens playing around in the ashes,” Thron said.

The team was able to catch them by rigging up a trap with food inside. They held it open with a mug with a rope tied to it, and when the kittens went in for the food, they pulled the rope and trapped them. At the end of the rescue mission, they had the mom and all four kittens.

Everything around was black. 2,000- to 3,000-degree flames killed every living thing except for the cats, because they were hiding in a cupboard.

“The mother cat survived on the 8th floor,” Thron said. “You could see pigeon wings around. She had survived in the apartment for a month with the kittens feeding on pigeons. We’re guessing they were hiding underneath the kitchen cupboards. She was nursing them underneath there when the bomb went off. Everything around was black and 2,000- to 3,000-degree flames killed every living thing except for the cats, because they were under there nursing.”

After the unexpected rescue, Thron used his infrared drone to save more dogs and cats from bombed out buildings around Ukraine.

The Man Behind the Drone

You may already know Thron’s name. He’s the aerial cinematographer and animal activist star of Doug to the Rescue, a show on Curiosity Stream that follows him on his journeys around the globe rescuing domesticated and wild animals after natural disasters with his infrared drone. The show’s second season is available now, taking Thron, who is based out of Australia, Florida, and California, to the Dominican Republic to rescue puppies, Malawi to track hyenas, California to rescue cats and animals abandoned after a wildfire, and Kentucky to find pets who were lost during tornados.

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Thron is the cofounder of Assert, a drone animal rescue company, and the show follows the Assert team as they work. But he got his start in animal rescue well before the show.

From when I was a little kid, I was raising orphaned possums and squirrels and raccoons.

“From when I was a little kid, I was raising orphaned possums and squirrels and raccoons,” he said. “But in my 20s and 30s, I was doing more environmental activism work, like protecting wild places through my cinematography. And then in my mid-40s, I got involved in animal rescue.”

Thron self-taught himself to fly drones through trial and error—losing about $1,500 for every error, because that was the price of the inexpensive drones he learned on. He was working as a cinematographer flying drones for National Geographic and Discovery when he thought up putting an infrared camera on a drone to more easily locate lost animals.

“I was filming natural disasters,” Thron said. “There were these animals missing and people were out looking for them. I thought I could find them with the drone, because when you’re up in the air, it’s somewhat easier to see them. But with the infrared cameras, because of body heat, they pop up easily.”

Thron’s first infrared drone rescues were in 2019 in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. Now, it’s his full-time business, though the show only airs 1% to 2% of his rescue missions.

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Helping Pets Get Back to Normal

As for the cats and dogs he rescues, Thron does what he can to get the pets back into loving hands and homes.

“We try to get the animals reunited with their owners, but unfortunately a lot of those people have passed away, or they might not have owners,” Thron said. “We try to find the owners, and if they’re around, then we reunite them. If they aren’t, then the animals go up for adoption. The wild animals [we rescue] get rehabilitated and let go back into the wild.”

As with his other rescues, Thron attempted to find the owners of the cat family he found in the 8th-floor apartment. He posted to a neighborhood Facebook group with a picture, and a relative of the owners recognized the furry family. Sadly, the entire family that owned the cats—a husband, wife, and child—died in the bombing. The relative couldn’t take the cats, so Thron is in the process of adopting two of them to be his own pets.

Thron is currently planning for a third season of the show. He’s hoping it will be a vehicle for his Ukraine rescues, which have all been filmed so far.

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