Helping animals in disasters |

Helping animals in disasters

Some years ago, while my husband and I were on a garden tour in England, we witnessed devastation to the famous Kew Gardens of London.

Visiting a friend who was headmistress of a prestigious girls school near Brighton, we learned of all their lights going out, windows being blown in, and isolation as a horrific storm hit while trying to keep all their students calm and safe during that night.

Sometimes trouble comes when we least expect it.

Perhaps Nevada County’s most memorable emergency in recent years was the 49’er Fire.

It created havoc and spread rapidly, canceling the Draft Horse Classic and costing millions of dollars.

The Fairgrounds became a fire camp and home for evacuated animals. People from surrounding counties joined locals in offering help in moving livestock and housing them during that crisis.

Another year, winter struck with vengeance and we were out of power for a week, with 3 feet of snow at the 1,500 foot level.

With 20 horses in the stables, we fortunately had a 500 gallon reserve water tank and plenty of hay in the barn, but because of snow melt from the roof, then freezing, couldn’t get stall doors open until a tractor was able to remove the snow and ice barriers.

Now well into 2007, we have worried about our vulnerability to fire and other potential disasters.

The Fire Safe Council recently had a special section, published in The Union, which emphasized defensible space for all residents.

Preparing for a disaster

If you have livestock, special precautions must be made. Many of them are common sense issues which should not be left to chance. Preparedness includes that horses are current on vaccinations.

Identification records should be complete, with photographs of each animal from four views, as well as having your stock micro-chipped for positive identification.

In case of evacuation or having to leave horses behind, the owner’s phone number or driver’s license should be spray painted on the animal (or use nail polish on hooves.)

Relocating livestock with their rightful owners can pose major problems.

If your horses are insured, be sure policies are up to date.

Owners of animals need to assess their property, and how it would fare in case of different emergencies: Disease, fire, or flood being critical issues in Nevada County.

Do you have an isolation area for sick animals, and can they have good shelter with facilities for treatment? Have you defensible space from fire? Irrigated pastures, fences that are fire resistant, and water sources such as ponds become vital.

Horses in a major Southern California fire were saved by the person in charge putting them in a metal riding arena, turning on all sprinklers . They planned ahead and had extra water storage in a tank and a generator. Each horse, accustomed to being individually stabled, was given an tranquilizer injection prior to being turned out together. The roads had closed, not allowing for evacuation.

If flooding or excessive snow occurs do you have high ground and shelter? And what about emergency water supplies and feed to last for several days? Do you know your neighbors, and could they be notified to help in an emergency or know how to contact you?

Evacuating horses in case of disaster

Should a horse owner need to evacuate their animal or animals to a safer haven, one must have a trailer in good working order and a tow vehicle with a full tank. If you don’t have a trailer, make plans ahead with friends, neighbors, or haulers. That can be important with any medical emergency as well, such as serious colic, where one may be directed to the Loomis Basin Equine unit or to U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Even more important, does your horse load into a trailer with ease? During the 49’er Fire I attempted to help evacuate horses in Penn Valley, only to find a child in charge of an uncaught mare and her 600-pound colt, who had never been haltered. Without experienced help, there was no way I could load them into a two horse trailer. My alternative was for them to lead the mare two or three miles to safety and let the foal follow. Others without transportation rode, ponied, or led horses to safety.

While at the Ojai Valley School in Southern California, a wild fire suddenly was fast approaching several hundred acres of dry grassland where we had about 30 school horses pastured. Alone that day, I rode at a brisk trot a few miles to round up those horses, opening gates on the way, then herded them back via a back private road toward home. With the exception of a minor wire cut or two, they all returned to our school stables safe and sound.

Have an animal first aid kit

Preparedness for any emergency includes having a good first aid kit for yourself and your horses. Among the most traumatic of emergencies is an overturned trailer, or a truck and trailer on fire. Again, fire extinguishers should be in every tow vehicle. Extra rope, tools for moving metal parts, heavy duty jacks, a good flashlight and flares are just the beginning. Today with cell phones, help can be notified more readily than in the past, but it takes only seconds for a panic-stricken horse to mortally wound itself, and endanger anyone trying to assist it.

Emergency phone numbers should be readily available, posted in stables, by telephones, and listed in your contacts of the cell phone. Key is your veterinarian’s phone number, your local fire department, and 911 for the sheriff.

Make a family plan

After assessing your risks and determining ways to minimize damage, a plan should be created and shared by everyone involved on your property. Before any disaster, prepare for possibility of needing to evacuate, and determine what routes might be available and where you might go, making arrangements ahead of time. Our Nevada County Fairgrounds is the probable site for animals, determined by our Office of Emergency Services. Have your ID packets prepared, including any special medications or feeding instructions for specific animals. Make a priority list in the event not all your animals may be saved. Developing a “buddy” system among neighbors can pool resources whether you hold out at home or evacuate.

Should such an unfortunate event occur, be sure to notify friends, neighbors, and family of your whereabouts and the condition of you and the horses or other animals. I

Our Office of Emergency Services, under the management of Victor Ferrera, activates response and support for major crisis. Ferrera warns, “Don’t wait until there is panic. Your neighbors need to know what to do if you are away from home.”

Local response team

After the 49er Fire, a concerned group formed CVMA, the California Veterinary Medical Association Disaster Response Team Program for Nevada and Placer counties. Patricia Ehlers, a licensed veterinary technician, coordinates this group of important volunteers. They work directly with other agencies such as Animal Control, Emergency Services, the sheriff, and The California Division of Forestry. She points out that it is key, “that animal owners be aware and be the most prepared that we can be.” In addition CVMA will speak to local groups, such as 4-H clubs, to help create awareness and to actively make up disaster plans.

Managing disease, injury

In case of disease outbreaks, such as West Nile Virus, Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Pylman collaborates with veterinarians and monitors mosquito populations carrying the virus. Dr. Jason Shaver, DVM, has worked with him attending task force meetings and helping monitor conditions. The agricultural commissioner’s office is also who to contact for predator damage and control from wildlife such as bears, mountain lions and coyotes who kill domestic livestock. They contract services with the U.S. Wildlife Services of the USDA.

Lt. Ron Earles of the Nevada County Animal Control and Protection – in addition to his other responsibilities – becomes involved when domestic dogs create havoc with sheep, goats, llamas, and other livestock.

Nevada County Consolidated Fireman Randal Gross of Rock-n-Horse Ranch has gone to the extra effort of being certified in large animal and horse rescue. Special slings are sometimes needed to support a horse so it can stand or be lifted.

Sheriff Keith Royal, who likely would be notified first with a 911 call, says that the “chain of command can differ depending upon the circumstances of the emergency.” He is responsible for plans for evacuation, while the California Highway Patrol would determine road closures. CVMA volunteers meet you at the roadblocks. Meanwhile, the Office of Emergency Services and California Division of Forestry work hand in hand, along with the CVMA Disaster Response team.

We all need to support and help each other. As Dr. Michael McRae, of Sierra Equine commented, “Great people seem to come out of the woodwork to help” when it comes to saving horses.

So please, assess your situation objectively; make a plan; and be as prepared as you can be. That is the best insurance possible that you won’t be caught up in a terrible situation.


Nevada County Sheriff’s Office: 911

Office of Emergency Services: 265-1515

Animal Control and Protection: 273-2179

Patricia Ehlers, CVMA coordinator: 477-6506

Agricultural Commissioner: 273-2648

CA Dept. Forestry and Fire Protection: 889-0111

CA State Highway Patrol: 273-4415

Fire Safe Council of Nevada County: 272-1122

Randal Gross, large animal rescue: 272-3289

Further information thanks to Sheryl Fuller, DVM, Veterinary Medical Officer, Emergency Preparedness & Support Unit, Department of Food and Agriculture Animal Health and Food Safety Services: Contact her at 916-651 9135 or e-mail:

American Association of Equine Practitioners has a very complete Emergency and Disaster Preparedness guideline Web site and as well publications. “Guidelines to Follow for Equine Emergencies” is a great pamphlet to start with.

Their Web site includes information and a listing of most organizations included in the subject, including Homeland Security, the American Red Cross, FEMA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and many more. Call (859) 233-0147 or

The Large Animal Rescue Web site, maintained by Red Jeans Ink is an excellent guideline:

– Felicia Tracy

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