Animal Rescue: Who’s Looking After the Animals?
Hurricane Katrina heightened public consciousness of animal rescue, but much work remains to be done
Since 2000, at least one flood has occurred in the U.S. on nearly 300 days per year, on average. In 2021, about 7 million acres burned in U.S. wildfires, which was better than the 10 million acres that burned the year before. The year 2022 was one of the costliest Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, mostly due to Hurricane Ian. And on Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Twenty of the affected cars contained hazardous materials, resulting in the immediate evacuation of a one-mile-by-two-mile area.
How are animals faring? Are your veterinary customers ready for the next disaster?
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 is widely considered the genesis of animal emergency management. It was Katrina that led to passage of the Pets Emergency and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act) in 2006, which required state and local emergency management arrangements to be pet- and service animal-inclusive.
In the 12 years since the introduction of the PETS Act, the United States has culturally made the preservation of companion animals in disasters a priority, concluded researchers from the Public Safety Institute of New Zealand. For example, following the hurricane warning for Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Gulf states in 2017, two major animal welfare charities in the area emptied their shelters and relocated their animals to safer locations. In addition, post-disaster community clinics were provided by major animal welfare charities, offering free vaccinations, heartworm tests and microchipping. One charity in Houston launched “Operation Reunite,” which enabled over 300 displaced animals to be placed in veterinary clinics as fosters instead of being housed in traditional temporary animal shelters.
However, despite the good intentions behind the PETS Act, widespread adoption has been sketchy. “The implementation of animal emergency planning appears sub-optimal and the integration of animal welfare charities to respond effectively remains fragmented in many areas,” according to the researchers.
Why is planning important?
“The world of emergency/disaster response has its own language,” says Debra Zoran, DVM, PhD, DACVIM-SAIM, professor at Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
In 2012, the Texas A&M veterinary school started a rotation on disaster preparedness for fourth-year students. The year before, a wildfire had engulfed parts of Bastrop County, Texas, in what was the costliest and most destructive wildfire in Texas history. Seventeen hundred homes were destroyed. “We knew the veterinary community was very interested and willing to help, but most didn’t know how to access or integrate into the emergency response organizational structure,” says Dr. Zoran. “Unless they have personally lived through a disaster, most people don’t think about it.”
Veterinarians should develop and nurture partnerships among others in the animal and first responder/emergency management communities to create contingency plans, she says. “The ideal situation is that veterinary hospitals maintain their normal VPCR [veterinarian-patient-client relationships] and accommodate disaster-impacted animals that have owners attached. There will be animals needing care that do not have owners present, but this should not fall solely to the veterinarian. The entire animal community – animal control, animal shelters and veterinarians – need to work together to provide shelter, care and treatment of animals that have been impacted by the disaster until they can be reunited with their owners.
“Plan for the worst, hope for the best – but plan.”
In the span of about six hours on Dec. 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire, a rapidly spreading grass fire in southeastern Boulder County, Colorado, destroyed over a thousand homes and displaced 30,000 residents. Although a precise count of animal deaths is not possible, it is likely that over 1,000 pets died, according to Leslie Irvine, PhD, University of Colorado Boulder, and Casara Andre, DVM, Front Range Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, who published a report on the fire in January 2023.
Many area residents were at work or out of town when the fire started, they wrote. Many learned of it primarily through media coverage or word of mouth. “By the time the news reached them, roads were congested with evacuees. Some, including major highways, were closed to all but emergency vehicles. ‘I thought I’d have time to get home and get the cat, but nobody had access,’” one resident told the authors.
Communication between disaster response organizations working in the disaster zone and the veterinary medical community was fractured and slow, they wrote. “Veterinary medical professionals did not know how to access official information outlets. … Lack of early, consistent communication between government and volunteer groups resulted in multiple self-deployments of veterinary professionals during the fire and in the initial weeks of recovery, when the search for lost animals was active.”
For veterinary and animal-rescue professionals, disasters such as the Marshall Fire are exhausting emotionally and physically, and in the absence of planning, practice and post-disaster support, the long-term impact is significant, says Dr. Andre. A community may be well-keyed into responding to wildfires, but what happens when the next one strikes?
“If you have a veterinary industry that is tapped out, exhausted and emotionally fragile, but you need some extra ‘oomph’ to respond to another disaster or to plan for another wildfire season, there may be nothing there,” she says. “It’s hard to keep a robust veterinary volunteer force engaged when they’re exhausted. That’s why we as a veterinary unit have made psychological resiliency our goal.
“Our industry is finally starting to put a name to professional grief,” she continues. “The worst torture is wanting to respond to an emergency in a professional capacity but not being able to help. Our team is still struggling with that.” To help address it, the Marshall area veterinary community intends to hold a mourning session this year. “It’s not just about grieving, but also about acknowledging what happened,” says Dr. Andre. “It’s part of working to maintain our clinical objectivity in the face of disaster.”
In the aftermath of a disaster such as the Marshall Fire, pets need support too, she adds. “After disasters, human health organizations offer support to the community, but we don’t see that from the pet side. There are things we need to be tracking among pets who have survived a disaster, such as long-term health changes – renal function, blood pressure and more. We also see sleep disturbances, hypervigilance and more in pets who are suffering with emotional trauma.”
Work to be done
To address the need for disaster preparedness, the American Veterinary Medical Association has launched two certificate programs – Veterinary First Responder and Disaster Business Continuity.
The Veterinary First Responder program is intended to prepare students to respond efficiently and effectively to disasters and disease emergencies, explains Lori Teller, DVM, DABVP, CVJ, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. As of May 2023, 54 individuals had received certificates for completing the program. “We anticipate many times this number will complete the certificate program once all modules are available online through AVMA Axon later this year,” she says.
“This program provides a broad, introductory overview of the important aspects of participating in disaster response that gives veterinarians information about what to expect and how to integrate into this system. It also introduces some of the more challenging topics for veterinarians who are considering becoming a veterinary responder, such as disaster medicine, field triage decisions, management of stressors associated with disaster response, and their role in the system.”
Regarding the Disaster Business Continuity certificate program, 274 participants have registered and 94 have completed it since it was launched in September 2021. “Business continuity planning and preparedness are key to business survival,” says Dr. Teller. “Just as we encourage clients to protect their animals in a disaster, and we plan for our own families and loved ones, we also need plans to protect our practices.
“Many, if not most, veterinary clinics already run close to capacity during normal times, so their ability to absorb additional animals during evacuations may be quite limited,” she says. The Disaster Business Continuity Certificate Program’s primary focus is to make sure that veterinary clinics are better prepared to deal with the animals they already have in the clinic during a disaster or emergency. “By being better prepared with their own continuity program, they will be better situated to know and direct animals’ needs to the proper resources.”
The Disaster Business Continuity and First Responder programs are intertwined, adds Dr. Teller. “One of the tenets of first responder readiness is to be personally prepared for disasters and emergencies as well as having one’s family prepared. This naturally extends to one’s business as well. If the business is not prepared to deal with a disaster or emergency, it will be difficult for veterinarians to be available as a resource to their community.”
“It doesn’t matter the industry,” says Dr. Andre. “The problem in any disaster usually is the lack of preparedness.”
First-responder core competencies
The AVMA Veterinary First Responder Certificate Program directs veterinarians and veterinary students to courses on disaster and emergency response, verifying that participants satisfy all core competencies required to respond efficiently and effectively to disasters. There are eight core competencies – each with sub-competencies – that must be satisfied to gain the certificate. Candidates must demonstrate knowledge of:
- Skills needed for personal and family preparedness for disasters and animal health emergencies.
- One’s expected role(s) in organizational and community response plans activated during a disaster or animal health emergency.
- Situational awareness of, and solutions to, actual or potential health concerns encountered before, during and after a disaster or animal health emergency.
- Potential impact of various types of disasters and animal health emergencies on resources and animals, along with potential solutions/workarounds.
- Biosecurity and animal welfare principles that may be required in dealing with animals in disasters or animal health emergencies.
- Reporting and responding to zoonotic, transboundary and foreign animal diseases, and how to mitigate potential impact on human and environmental health (One Health).
- Humane euthanasia/depopulation techniques for various animal species and appropriate disposal options for animal carcasses (both small and large numbers of carcasses) that may be required.
- Certificate candidates must also complete required FEMA online courses.
Source: American Veterinary Medical Association, avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/disaster-preparedness/avma-veterinary-first-responder-certificate-program
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