Forest FireIn the event of natural disasters, millions of people rely on the “first responders” of police, fire and paramedic squads.  Until recently, our animals were often 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, they 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 tornados 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 are often woefully unprepared to cope with both people AND their pets.  Many animal welfare groups and official Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMATs) are often available to lend aid, but coordination with authorities is often lacking.

Fortunately, a landmark meeting between the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and many other groups has led to a proposed plan to incorporate the NARSC members into 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 animal freed from puppy mills, criminal activities, such as dog fighting 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 on-line 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 by Merial® along with the Foundation and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.  Initially a simple fundraising response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Paws to Save Pets has grown into a multi-level support system.  They provide disaster preparedness training, respond to local and national emergencies, and grant needed reimbursements to rebuild and restock veterinary clinics in disaster zones.

As pet owners, we should follow some of the same advice and make sure our whole family, pets and all, are ready to evacuate in the event of an emergency.  Ideas to help you prepare a “pet disaster pack” can be found on many different websites, including and  Ask your veterinarian about needed vaccination records and proper identification so that you won’t be caught without these when disaster strikes.

Just like people, pets and livestock are often victims of natural catastrophes and man-made emergencies.  Now, thanks to dedicated volunteers, our four legged friends have their very own corps of “first responders”.

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