First responders for pets

Saturday, May 12 is National Animal Disaster Preparedness Day, a day set aside to raise awareness about the importance of planning for pets’ safety before disaster strikes. This story of one AAHA-accredited hospital employee’s work as an animal disaster first responder originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Trends magazine.

When animal disaster strikes, the team at AAHA-accredited Metzler Veterinary Hospital in Clearwater, Fla., is ready to roll—and Judy Baum drives the semi.

Handling a big rig that holds 75 animals is just one of her skills. Baum, CVT and practice manager at this hospital, is trained in all aspects of disaster animal response, including medical triage, animal wrangling, and setting up temporary shelters.

Baum knew she’d found her calling when she joined the Bay Area Disaster Animal Response Team in 1997, but she first heard the call after Hurricane Andrew landed in South Florida in 1992. The devastation left people reeling, and pets just weren’t a priority.

“The animals weren’t addressed for at least six weeks, so a lot of those animals perished,” Baum says. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers like Baum, things were considerably different after Katrina hit in 2005. “The response time was two weeks, and a lot more animals were saved.”

That same year, Baum, also an animal disaster response instructor, developed the first disaster animal response team training program at St. Petersburg College’s School of Veterinary Technology, where she taught large-animal medicine while continuing her day job at Metzler.

“In the meantime, I deployed,” Baum says. She worked tirelessly on rescue and recovery missions at disaster sites, both natural and manmade. Natural disasters seem obvious: hurricanes, floods, and fire. Manmade disasters are less so, ranging from puppy mills to Pit bull terrier fights—and that’s where Baum’s driving skills come in handy. She drives the truck when disaster animal response teams aid local law enforcement on raids to confiscate abused animals.

Shutting down a puppy mill or raiding a Pit bull fight requires stealth; Baum says she often dresses in dark blue when taking the wheel. “You have to do everything undercover,” she says.

She and her fellow team members go in hard on the heels of the sheriff’s deputies who serve the warrants, loading the animals onto trucks and driving them to shelters. The team never knows beforehand where the raid is taking place. Baum says dryly, “We’re just told to drive.”

Baum’s real specialty is teaching her disaster response skills to others, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken note. She works with the Florida State Animal Response Coalition (FLSARC), a statewide coalition of animal rescue groups. FLSARC’s program is recognized by FEMA as the national model for disaster animal response training.

Baum is also a national instructor with the Humane Society of the United States and a member of the State Agricultural Response Team and the National Disaster Animal Response Team (N-DART).

Baum’s work with N-DART is national in scope, but she praises Metzler Veterinary Hospital owner Doug Metzler, DVM, for his support of her efforts at home. While there’s no such thing as a certified disaster animal hospital, the Metzler hospital may be the closest thing to it. Through Baum’s efforts, everyone on staff is either a certified disaster responder or training to become one. In the event of a local disaster, she wants everyone who works at Metzler ready to respond.

“That’s the goal, locally,” Baum says. “To help the community get back on its feet with the animals.”

In recognition of National Animal Disaster Preparedness Day, FEMA is asking veterinarians and kennels to provide pet owners with tips on creating emergency plans for their companion animals. When animal disaster strikes, be ready.

Photo credit: © iStock/Michael Repeta

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