When Debra Jo Chiapuzio visited Orange County Animal Care shelter in Anaheim, California, 13 years ago, she was simply looking for a dog to add to her family. She didn’t realize that Emma Zen, the Great Dane/Labrador Retriever mix she adopted that day, would give her so much more than canine companionship. Four years later, the dog would become the namesake of Chiapuzio’s nonprofit organization, the Emma Zen Foundation, which donates pet oxygen masks to first responders to help them save animals’ lives.
Today, the Emma Zen Foundation has expanded into an all-volunteer organization that has donated thousands of pet oxygen masks to fire departments across the country. It also provides pet-specific training to first responders and civilians, and advocates for people and communities to better prepare for pet emergencies.
“You might never need anything we teach you. You might never need anything in your pet first aid kit,” she says. “You might never need the fire department to save your animal. But if you need any of that stuff and it’s not there, that is a worst-case scenario to me.”
Even before adopting Emma Zen, Chiapuzio was focused on helping first responders. She worked as a medical tattoo artist, specializing in helping people who had disfigurements from cancer or car crashes, often working on the grafted skin of burn victims like injured firefighters. Raised in LaHabraha Heights, one of the few rural areas of Los Angeles County, Chiapuzio was also a lifelong animal lover, growing up around horses, cows, chickens and other farm animals.
“Animals were my thing since a very young age,” she says. “I’ve always taken special care of animals.”
That’s why Chiapuzio went looking for a dog to call her own back in 2007. When she arrived, many of the dogs at the shelter were restless and barking. But amid the ruckus, one pup stayed calm and serene. “I went, ‘That’s my dog,’” Chiapuzio recalls. She learned that the dog was rescued from a wildfire before landing in the shelter. Chiapuzio gave her the name Emma Zen as a nod to her chill personality.
A dedicated dog mom, Chiapuzio split her time between training and caring for Emma Zen and shifts at work. Though she found tattooing to be rewarding, she began to realize that her heart was in helping animals. So when she learned that human oxygen masks aren’t effective on animals affected by fires and other disasters, it got her wondering: Was her local fire department equipped to save pets’ lives?
“I started looking into it and found out that there is no requirement for anything to save an animal on a fire engine,” she says. “I set out to change that.”
Oxygen masks made for humans don’t fit properly over most animals’ snouts, she learned. To save pets’ lives, firefighters need special pet oxygen masks that can completely cover animals’ noses and mouths. Chiapuzio donated 17 masks to her local firefighters and trained them how to use them—a first for the Anaheim fire department.
Her efforts didn’t stop there. She founded the Emma Zen Foundation in 2011, fittingly naming it after her wildfire survivor dog. Soon, she expanded her focus to all of Orange County, then took her mission nationwide. Today, the Emma Zen Foundation has donated over 7,500 pet oxygen masks to fire departments and other first responders all across the United States.
Chiapuzio devotes herself entirely to the cause. She teaches pet first aid and CPR at libraries throughout Los Angeles County, donating all of her compensation to the Emma Zen Foundation. She often works out of the shop of her husband’s business, packing up pet medic kits for shipment. She also channels Emma Zen’s voice in social media posts for the foundation, sharing updates about their progress as if the dog were writing them herself.
In 2021, Chiapuzio hopes to launch a YouTube channel and expand to other social media platforms in order to reach more pet lovers during the pandemic. She’s also planning to teach pet parents more about emergency preparedness, especially for those living in fire-prone places like California.
And none of it may have been possible without Chiapuzio’s sweet, serene dog, Emma Zen. In fact, Chiapuzio says she draws strength and inspiration from her each day. Like Emma, she says, “I just keep being positive and putting one paw in front of the other.”
Prep Your Pets for an Emergency
Want to make sure you and your pets are fully prepared in the event of an emergency? Take action by taking these steps:
- Pack a pet emergency kit: Keeping essentials in one handy place can help you respond quickly if disaster strikes. Dr. Katy Nelson, DVM, suggests keeping your pet's medical records and an ER contact card in your emergency kit, along with products like a pet first aid kit and hydrogen peroxide. For a full list of pet emergency kit items, read more.
- Brush up on pet first aid basics: Accidents happen, but knowing pet first aid basics can make the experience less stressful for both you and your pet. Our guide to pet first aid explains how to handle minor cuts, safety measures for handling injured animals and more.
- Level up with a first aid or CPR course: If you want to be as prepared as possible for potential emergencies, invest in a pet CPR and first aid course. The American Red Cross offers online training in pet first aid, and First Aid for Pets offers a free online dog CPR class too. If you're in Southern California, Chiapuzio teaches lessons in the Huntington Beach area, and your registration fees are donated to the Emma Zen Foundation.