October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

AS THE 26-FOOT FISHING BOAT PULLS ALONG-SIDE a wharf on the once-idyllic Caribbean isle of Montserrat, a pensive John Walsh stares at a scene of near-total desolation. The port of Plymouth, the formerly bustling capital city founded in the late 1700s, is now a ghost town. Its handsome Georgian homes have been burned or buried under a mass of gray ash from the Soufriere Hills volcano, which dominates the horizon with plumes of dark steam rising from its summit. Walsh and his companions disembark and wander cautiously through the silent streets scarred by pockets of white-hot ash. Suddenly they spot a grim reminder of the volcano’s deadly fury: a human foot, now mummified, juts from beneath a fallen tin roof.

Yet Walsh’s mission is not to catalog the dead but to save a life rumored to be hanging on somewhere in this bleak moonscape. Walsh, the Boston-bred director of international projects for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, has come to rescue a dog believed to have survived long after its owners perished or, more likely, joined the 4,000 Plymouth residents evacuated to the safer northern end of the island after the volcano began to spew lethal gas and ash more than two years ago.

“Here, boy! Come on. Come on, boy!” the men shout, picking their way past downed power lines. As if on cue, a brown-and-tan mixed-breed terrier—a female—bounds from a side street. Her tail wags furiously. Dropping to one knee, Walsh, 56, lures the eager pup toward him a couple of feet at a time, using treats that no dog, let alone a half-starved one, can resist: chunks of cheese and sardines from a hastily opened can. Moments later, the suddenly serene stray—now clearly one happy puppy—snuggles against Walsh’s stout chest, melting his heart. “What a pretty little dog,” coos the 6’4″ Irish-American. “She’s got to come back to Boston with me.”

The rescue of Lady Ashley Plymouth de Montserrat (Plymmie, for short), as Walsh named her, was but a brief moment in Walsh’s latest mission. Working out of WSPA’s Boston office, Walsh and his colleagues have saved tens of thousands of animals from river-damming projects in Suriname and Panama, from the smoke and oil pollution that fouled Kuwait and its waters after the Persian Gulf War, and from the 1995 earthquake that devastated Kobe, Japan. His September trip to Montserrat was his fourth effort to help round up roughly 300 abandoned pets and several hundred farm animals, employing trucks, boats, helicopters and gas-masked volunteers at a cost of more than $50,000. Once fed, groomed and treated for burns and other ailments, the pets are shipped by sea and air to adoption centers in Florida.

“What else would you want to do if you care about animals?” Walsh asks of his lifelong devotion to critters in need. “It’s every kid’s dream.” Walsh is impatient with those who call the WSPA’s costly rescue mission a luxury in light of the acute homelessness and poverty that afflict Montserrat. The animals are “worth every penny,” says Walsh. “As soon as our members found out we were rescuing them, the phones started ringing with people wanting to donate.”

Like many other four-legged friends rescued in WSPA’s last roundup, Plymmie traveled by boat to Montserrat’s officially designated northern Safe Zone, where the bulk of the island’s dwindling population—down to 3,500 from a pre-evacuation high of 11,000—now lives. There she joined the latest batch of refugees—11 cats and 90 dogs, including Labradors, a German shepherd, a Rhodesian Ridgeback and dozens of brown “island dogs” housed in a cacophonous tin-roofed kennel. “It’s like a market on Saturday,” says Gerardo Huertas, 38, the group’s Costa Rican-born regional director of special projects, as he weighs and examines a nervous puppy. Aside from malnutrition, many animals suffer from difficulty chewing with teeth worn down by licking abrasive volcanic ash from their coats for months. Others, like those left tied up by owners who fled in haste, have temporarily lost their bark after breathing scalding fumes. Sadly, about 20 animals in Plymmie’s group had to be euthanized.

After a day and a half of care, the surviving pets were loaded into plastic carriers—Plymmie’s was marked Boston Bound-John Walsh—for a truck ride to Montserrat’s harbor. There they were stacked like cargo on the open decks of the ferry Admiral Bay, which would carry them to the neighboring island of Antigua, 27 miles to the northeast. Several dogs barked nervously, and with good reason. By the end of the three-hour passage, most were seasick.

After a night of rest at Antigua’s airport, the animals were readied for the final leg of their trip: a six-hour island-hopping flight to Miami International Airport, followed by a truck ride to the Broward County Humane Society in Dania, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale. Aboard the Boeing 737 jet, one frightened dog escaped from her cage. “I was going to sleep, and suddenly I look up, and a nose is sticking in my face like she’s reading my magazine,” says Huertas.

Employees at the Broward County shelter greeted their latest arrivals with gentle murmurs. “You’re okay now,” one worker said, stroking a terrier mix. But judging by the whipping tails and merry yelps, the dogs didn’t need much reassurance. “These animals have traveled so far and are so trusting,” says Jo-Anne Roman, the center’s director of operations. “It makes you feel wonderful to see them end up in such great homes.”

In fact the first two airlifts generated a huge response. During a normal July, the center receives about 8,000 visitors. This year the figure rose to 20,000. Kim Castle, 29, a Boca Raton dietician, arrived at 9 a.m. the day after WSPA’s July 1 rescue mission to find a small crowd already outside. Inside she discovered Brandsby, a Jack Russell mixed-breed. “She was lying on her back barking at me to scratch her big tummy,” says Castle. Shelter workers told her that the dog had been found tied to a shack in a remote part of the island. Three days after she was saved, the entire region was engulfed by searing gas, rock and ash, a deadly combination that scientists call a pyroclastic flow. “She’s the best,” Castle enthuses. “She loves to put her nose in the water and blow bubbles.”

But heartwarming stories like Brandsby’s are only part of what motivates Walsh and the others at WSPA. In addition to rescuing the pets—almost all of whom have now been adopted—the group helped transport hundreds of Montserrat’s abandoned farm animals to nearby St. Kitts, and Walsh hopes to return soon to remove some 200 sheep, goats and donkeys reportedly stranded on grass patches in the island’s worst-hit areas. In the meantime he tends to his own tail-wagging memento of the dying island. Plymmie has taken quite nicely to life with Walsh and his wife, Joyce, 56, an editor. Even their 12-year-old mongrel, Elizabeth, seems to have adjusted. “We were concerned, because Elizabeth is the only baby we’ve got, and we thought her nose would be out of joint, but she’s doing fine,” says Walsh. Plymmie, he beams, “is a member of the family.”


DON SIDER in Montserrat and GREG AUNAPU in Broward County

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