How one National Geographic cinematographer turned his lens to rescuing animals from natural disasters.

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baby koala Douglas Thron
Thron swaddles a baby koala injured during last year’s Australian wildfires.
| Credit: Photo Courtesy Douglas Thron

In September 2019, Douglas Thron took a break from his work as an aerial cinematographer for National Geographic and boarded a boat headed for the Bahamas to deliver aid, food, and medical supplies to survivors of Hurricane Dorian, the worst natural disaster in the country's history. He brought some drones to take footage of the devastation for fundraising videos, but he decided to try something different: He attached an infrared camera to a drone to help locate missing pets hidden amid 30-foot piles of rubble. He worked with animal-rescue groups, alerting them when he found survivors so they could receive veterinary care.

"In the hardest-hit area—it looked like dynamite blew up an entire neighborhood, with debris everywhere and cars all twisted up—I spotted a skinny brown and white dog. I was blown away that he could have survived that devastation," says Thron. "I felt a special connection with him." Thron tracked the dog down using the drone's GPS and offered him some food. The dog timidly approached, limping on a broken leg, then chowed down. After 30 days no one had claimed the rubble dog, so Thron adopted him, named him Duke, and brought him home to Northern California.

Duke inspired Thron to keep rescuing animals from natural disasters. He added a 180X zoom lens to the drone and says, "I can now tell if a cat has 12 or 13 whiskers." Thron has volunteered with the Humane Society International and World Wildlife Fund to locate and rescue koalas during the Australian wildfires, plus pets in Louisiana after a hurricane and in California and Oregon after wildfires. In less than two years, he's helped save hundreds of animals. "I've been an animal lover since I was a kid. I used to take care of orphaned baby possums and squirrels," he explains.

These days, when Thron isn't on the road rescuing furry creatures in need, he takes Duke camping and feeds him fresh-caught fish. "He's survived the unimaginable," says Thron, "so I try to treat him like a king."

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.