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Dr. Salwan: When disaster strikes, rescuers respond

By Dr. Raj Salwan
Oakland Tribune

Posted: 09/14/2009 05:06:15 PM PDT

Updated: 09/14/2009 08:08:40 PM PDT

In the event of natural disasters, millions of people rely on the first responders: police, fire and paramedic squads. Until recently, our animals often were left out of evacuations or rescues.

But today, first responders will have help from some very special animal response teams.

When wildfires ravage the West, the teams are there leading horses and livestock to safety. When floods drown the Midwest, they are there rescuing pets and settling them in temporary shelters. And, when the fierce winds of hurricanes and tornadoes devastate whole communities, once again they are there to help with animal rescue efforts.

“They” are the thousands of volunteers who put aside their jobs and family to help save animals when Mother Nature, or human folly, wreaks havoc.

Finding people to help pets has never been difficult, but recent rough storm seasons and continuing wildfires have taught us that disaster responders and temporary shelters often are woefully unprepared to cope with both people and their pets.

Many animal welfare groups and official Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams often are available to lend aid, but coordination with authorities often is lacking.

Fortunately, a landmark meeting between the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and many other groups has led to a proposed plan to incorporate the animal coalition membersinto emergency operations in the event of a large scale disaster.

This means that there will be an increased level of awareness, coordination and efficiency for dealing with animals during these tragic situations.

And even beyond natural disasters, many of these rescue teams will help with large groups of animals freed from puppy mills; and criminal activities such as dogfighting kennels; or even animal-hoarding cases.

These animal rescuers are unpaid volunteers who sacrifice a great deal to help the four-legged victims of disasters.

Red Star Animal Emergency Services, as an example, has a roster of more than 100 deployable volunteers who have undergone intense training and are able to help with urban searches, flood recovery tasks, and even veterinary surgery capabilities in their specialized “Rescue Rig.”

American Humane Association also asks that their volunteers complete online training through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.

Beyond the need for manpower on-site, disasters often mean that local shelters, veterinarians and other animal agencies are low on medicine and supplies. In addition to logistical and delivery problems, purchasing and delivering relief supplies is also a huge challenge.

Thankfully, the pet and veterinary industries have stepped up to answer the call for money and support through public awareness. After the severe 2005 storm season, the Paws to Save Pets program was created along with the Petfinders.com Foundation and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

We should make sure our family, pets and all, are ready to evacuate. Ask you veterinarian about needed vaccinations, preventive care, and proper identification so that you won’t be caught without these when disaster strikes.

Dr. Raj Salwan, a second-generation veterinarian, has been around veterinary medicine for more than 21 years. He can be reached at  www.americananimalcare.com.