Animals New Focus for Disaster Response in Kansas

July 29, 2008

About 100 veterinarians, animal control officers and emergency responders met in Kansas to learn more about victims often overlooked in disasters — pets and other animals.

The training conference is the first for the Kansas State Animal Response Team, formed in 2004. Among the group’s goals is to expand the 13 animal response teams already at work in Kansas and spread them across the state.

Christen Skaer, a Wichita veterinarian and directors of the state and Sedgwick County animal response teams, said emergency managers are typically so focused on saving humans during tornadoes, ice storms and floods that animal welfare is an afterthought.

“We didn’t hit the radar screen. Now we are,” Skaer said. “They’re becoming much more receptive, and I think they want us around.”

Skaer speaks from experience. She said she remembers standing in the middle of Greensburg 12 hours after its destruction by a tornado last year and listened to the dogs bark, being able to determine their breed and how far away they were in the eerie silence left by an absence of trees or birds.

The storm displaced about 350 animals whose owners didn’t take them with them. Many got sick and died.

“Greensburg really lit a fire under us and made us realize that we don’t have much choice,” Skaer said. “It’s a human health issue as well as an animal issue.”

Besides organizing the response teams, the two-day conference was aimed at training people to provide shelter and first aid for animals, recruit volunteers, deal with livestock and exotic animals, manage stress and handle aggressive animals.

Dan Hay, operations section chief for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, acknowledged that emergency managers had largely ignored the animal component of disasters. But he said it’s an issue that they have to deal with, especially as many people won’t seek shelter without their pets.

“This organization and organizations like it across the state are going to take an immense load off the emergency management,” Hay said. “They’re going to come in and assist shelters. That’s a major headache that emergency managers won’t have to deal with.”

Source: The Wichita Eagle.

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