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Woman donates more than 7,500 pet oxygen masks after rescuing dog from wildfires

Debra Jo Chiapuzio worked as a medical tattoo artist for burn victims like firefighters before founding the nonprofit Emma Zen Foundation.
Courtesy Debra Jo Chiapuzio
/ Source: TODAY

A dog named Emma Zen isn’t a Dalmatian, but she’s visited most of the fire departments on the West Coast.

When the Great Dane/Labrador retriever mix was just 4 months old, firefighters rescued her from the devastating wildfires in Southern California in 2017. They took her to an animal shelter in Anaheim, California, where she was placed on a “fire hold” to wait to be reunited with her family.

Sadly, no one ever came to claim her — but when she became available for adoption, Debra Jo Chiapuzio took her home.

“She’s as Zen as her name: super mellow, super sweet, easygoing and very adventurous,” Chiapuzio told TODAY.

For decades, Chiapuzio had been teaching pet first aid and CPR in her spare time. She wanted the fire department in Anaheim to have special pet oxygen masks to protect dogs in her community like Emma Zen.

Oxygen masks for humans can’t properly fit over animal snouts, but pet oxygen masks have rubber seals with give and take to completely cover noses and mouths.

A firefighter uses a pet oxygen mask on a puppy.
A firefighter in California uses a pet oxygen mask to successfully resuscitate a puppy.Courtesy of Debra Jo Chiapuzio

Chiapuzio donated 17 masks to the department and trained firefighters on how to use them. Thinking other fire stations could benefit, she created the nonprofit Emma Zen Foundation in 2011 and started reaching out to fire departments from home and on vacation — with the organization’s namesake by her side.

“I would go on vacation throughout our Western states and every time I saw a fire department, I'm stopping,” Chiapuzio recalled. “I’m pretty sure Emma has been in about 90% of the fire departments on the West Coast.”

Emma Zen poses in firefighter gear.
After being rescued from wildfires as a puppy, Emma Zen has gone on to inspire the Emma Zen Foundation, which donates pet oxygen masks to firefighters and first responders across America.Dogma Pet Portraits

Thanks to that legwork and donations ranging from individual donors and Girl Scout troops to the Annenberg Foundation, the Emma Zen Foundation has donated more than 7,500 pet oxygen masks to firefighters and first responders across America.

The masks have primarily saved dogs and cats, but they’ve also been used on miniature pigs, guinea pigs and an iguana.

“The iguana was cute,” she said. “I saw in New York a firefighter taking a child and a little cage and they put a mask over a hamster just to give him some air because they had taken a family out.”

While people don’t always know where the masks that helped save their pets come from, Chiapuzio is always moved when she hears from those whose pets have survived fires. In 2017, she got to meet a family with young children and their puppy, Penelope — who had been resuscitated by a firefighter who used a mask from the Emma Zen Foundation.

“The mom said her children weren't really affected like the adults were when it came to property. The only thing they knew was life, and their puppy had it because of us,” she said. “It just touched my heart in ways I don't think I've ever felt. The adults knew the devastation and the children only knew life.”

Debra Jo Chiapuzio holds a puppy rescued from a fire alongside the dog's family.
Debra Jo Chiapuzio holds Penelope, a puppy resuscitated by a firefighter using a pet oxygen mask donated by the Emma Zen Foundation, alongside the dog's grateful family.Courtesy of Debra Jo Chiapuzio

Chiapuzio, 58, is a former medical tattoo artist who worked with cancer survivors and burn victims — like firefighters. Word spread with firefighters after she successfully tattooed hair onto the burned leg of a man named Patrick, and he was able to wear shorts for the first time in 12 years.

“He told a friend, who told a friend, who told a friend, and I was working on adding continuity of tone, color, skin and hair to people who had been in fires,” she said. “I found myself in this really unique niche and I loved to be there.”

Debra Jo Chiapuzio hugs Emma Zen.
Debra Jo Chiapuzio worked as a medical tattoo artist for cancer survivors and burn victims before founding the Emma Zen Foundation.Courtesy of Debra Jo Chiapuzio

Since the need for emergency preparedness shows no signs of slowing down, Chiapuzio now focuses her attention on The Emma Zen foundation full time. Emma Zen herself, now 13, continues to support the cause.

“She’s got arthritis and is slowing down, but her foundation is not,” Chiapuzio said.

Emma Zen enjoys home life with Chiapuzio and her husband, as well as a host of pets that includes three macaws, a 200-pound tortoise and a 150-pound pig named Baby Banks.

A bird rests on the back of a pig.
Baby Banks, aka "The Spokespig for Kindness," and Sadie Mae are two of Debra Jo Chiapuzio's many beloved pets.Courtesy of Debra Jo Chiapuzio

“We jokingly call it the Zen Zoo,” she said with a laugh. “Everybody walks around with everybody else. The parrots ride on the back of the pig; the cat sleeps with the dog.”

While her path in life has had many twists and turns, she’s grateful for her experiences and to Emma Zen for inspiring the Emma Zen Foundation.

“If I died tomorrow, we left behind — Emma and I — something that means more to me than anything, and that’s the animals on this planet,” she said. “This has been my biggest accomplishment, and I was led there by a dog.”