Pets find post-disaster haven

Andy, Can, Finder, Karma and Nova find themselves hanging out in the intake line at a shelter.

BY SUSAN KIM | CROWNSVILLE, Md. | March 21, 2005

"Working with animals can sometimes magnify the stress of responding to a disaster."

—Melissa Forberg

Andy, Can, Finder, Karma and Nova find themselves hanging out in the intake line at a shelter. A tornado has just hit their town. Andy looks like he’d like to curl up someplace warm. Can and Nova are socializing, while Finder talks loudly to herself. Karma is plainly fearful and cringes at the sight of the bustle inside.

Right now it doesn’t matter that they’re dogs and not people. The point is to find them a safe place after a disaster.

At a simulation exercise in rural Crownsville, Md., on Sunday afternoon, these pets are willing actors in a scenario where people learn to set up a temporary animal shelter in the wake of a tornado.

Anne Culver, director of disaster services for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), surveys the scenario. About 30 trainees have spent the weekend learning about how to shelter animals during disasters, and they’re testing their knowledge during this simulation.

Trainees set up crates, decide who will deal with the press, interview owners of animals, and fill out paperwork. So far things are going smoothly.

Culver decides to throw a wrench in the works. She hops on her handheld radio. “Uh, I need incident command. There’s an Italian in intake here.” Sure enough, a man standing in line is speaking what appears to be loud Italian, and he’s holding a large stuffed dog.

This dog isn’t real but the trainees on the other end of the radio are suddenly worried. They’ve misheard Culver’s direction. “A stallion?!” one says with disbelief. “There’s a stallion in intake?”

Culver reassures them. “No, no. I said an Italian. What I’m trying to make you realize is that sometimes you’ll need a translator. You need to think about those details.”

The trainees sigh. “An Italian stallion,” says one jokingly. “I thought we had Sylvester Stallone at intake for a minute there.”

Her peers take a moment to laugh, and the camaraderie between them is obvious. They’ve been together all weekend, and they’ve learned it’s not out of the realm of possibility to have a stallion show up at a temporary animal shelter. Together, they’ve planned a shelter with details right down to where they’d put an emu should one show up.

Meanwhile, the real dogs are getting impatient, and the trainees go back to work: talking to owners, filling out forms, figuring out where to get more supplies. Two rabbits - Shakespeare and Avalon - arrive, and Finder goes nuts barking.

Sometimes the questions that come up in a scenario might sound strange: “hey, what if someone walks in with a boa constrictor?” asks one trainee. But talking about the odd details can be great preparation for real life, says Culver.

“Because sometimes truth is stranger than any simulation,” she says. While trainees in the simulation worry about getting supplies, she cautions them to control the messages they’re sending out about dog food donations.

“In the wake of 9/11, we had 150,000 pounds of dog food donated - and that was only the dog food that was on large trucks. That doesn’t even take into consideration the dog food that was in the back of things like pickup trucks. I mean, everybody loved the search dogs and wanted to donate dog food. But in reality there were only 300 search dogs, each of whom was on a special diet.

“Nine months later we were still dealing with that dog food,” says Culver. Culver and other HSUS leaders called animal shelters and also called America’s Second Harvest - a food bank umbrella organization - and eventually put the dog food where it was most needed.

“You can never tell what people will donate,” she says. “Don’t ask for it - you just might get it.”

That doesn’t mean donors and volunteers aren’t useful, she says. “Bilingual skills are useful. See what’s in your community. Construction engineers might help you, and so might amateur radio operators.”

As the simulation draws to a close, trainees realize how many extra hands it would take to operate an actual temporary animal shelter during an emergency. “Well, let’s see,” says one trainee, going over her equipment list, “we need crates, volunteers, medicines, volunteers, pet food, volunteers, a generator, and, let’s see, oh, volunteers.”

Culver is quick with a suggestion: “Senior citizen centers are a great place to recruit volunteers." And once you have them - keep them happy and interested, she suggests. “Hit them with little newsletters. Keep them interested and active. Offer them regular training. Figure out a way to interview people and pre-qualify them.”

Pre-qualifying volunteers and training them before disaster strikes means filling them in on the unique challenges of working with animals in a post-disaster situation, says Melissa Forberg, HSUS disaster consultant. “Working with animals can sometimes magnify the stress of responding to a disaster. You’re either euphoric about an animal you’ve saved or depressed about one you’ve lost.”

There are two big mistakes people tend make when working with animals in post-disaster situations, Forberg says. “People without training handle animals - and they shouldn’t handle animals. And people push themselves beyond what they should.”

For the trainees gathered together, simulating a disaster - especially with the help of real animals - proves a valuable way to learn. They lead the dogs into crates and at last get them comfortable and safe.

And as for the boa constrictor: in a case like that, keep the owner with the snake if at all possible. “Give him the supplies he needs to take care of it," says Culver.

Whatever the pet, Culver has one last reminder: “You have charge of somebody’s treasure.”

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