I love my job working for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as a field research analyst in zoonotic diseases. I recently attended--in my capacity as certified veterinary technician (CVT)--a three-day seminar at the Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth, Vt., on the rescue of large animals in disaster situations. The seminar was presented by Drs. Tomas and Rebecca Gimenez of Clemson University in South Carolina, in association with the Rutland Area Humane Society. It was designed for the benefit of horse owners, fire departments, animal rescue personnel, veterinary technicians, and other interested parties.

We listened intently during the slide show and presentation on the equipment and methods used in an emergency, as well as the dos-and-don'ts of large animal rescue, and if necessary, how to humanely euthanize a critically injured animal. Later, participants went outdoors for live rescue demonstrations. With the assistance of the Gimenez team, my partner and I were able to draw some interesting parallels between large animal emergency preparedness and human public health emergency preparedness--particularly the impact on disease control. With that food for thought, we have been able to help pilot new networks between state agencies dealing with human health and services and animal health and resources.

rescuing a horse in the water

"The simulated rescues were exciting and fun, but what really mattered was learning knowledge and skills that could be crucial in a real emergency."

The Gimenez team emphasizes the importance of learning the techniques of the Incident Command System. Since they have toured the country, including various universities and veterinary schools, one begins to wonder if this dynamic duo ever gets tired. Live presentations and hands-on activities are an important part of what they do. Each of the animals is well-trained to tolerate things such as lying down on command or being lifted off its feet. A horse was lifted off the ground to show the proper use of a "sling" in an emergency rescue. The "forward assist" was demonstrated to show how to properly equip a trapped horse that is either standing or down. There was even a horse "flotation device" to assist horses or other livestock trapped in floodwaters. The pièce de rèsistance, however, was an exercise in "mud extrication" in which a llama named Dexter was rescued from a mud pit by designated rescue teams with the help of a backhoe.

The simulated rescues were exciting and fun, but what really mattered was learning knowledge and skills that could be crucial in a real emergency. Disaster preparedness is important for all animals, but especially for equids because of their large size, behavior patterns and types, and the requirements for transporting them. Disasters such as barn fires, hazardous material spills, ice storms, floods, and things as bizarre as sinkholes and train derailments can happen anywhere.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency--and various animal welfare organizations--have put together guidelines for horse owners that advise them on disaster preparedness for their equids. From the national tragedy that occurred on 9/11 in New York City to the more recent rumors of a "dirty bomb" heading for Boston, the United States has become more concerned about how to respond to large- and small-scale disasters, both natural and man-made.

The time available to evacuate horses in an emergency is limited. Having a plan ready may make the difference between survival and disaster. At the very least, keep halters ready for your horses. Each halter should include the horse's name, your name, your telephone number, and another emergency number where someone can be reached. If you are unprepared or wait until the last minute to evacuate, you could be told by emergency management officials that you must leave your horses behind.

For more information on preparing for large animal disasters and learning the basics of incident command, go to the Emergency Management Institute webpage and look for their online independent study courses.

Don't forget to visit the Gimenez website.

Originally published in the September 2005 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

Claudia Sarti, CVT, freelance equine journalist, works for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as a Program Coordinator for rural domestic violence and sexual abuse issues.