Clemson, ASPCA partner for floodwater animal rescue training
MCCORMICK — During the “thousand-year flood” in South Carolina in 2015, emergency crews received reports of numerous cats stranded on the roof of a home in a heavily flooded area in Georgetown County. With the ground floor flooded, the cats — some from neighboring houses — could not be evacuated by their owners.
Deploying a multi-boat operation, Dick Green, senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and a rescue team of trained volunteers were able to recover 23 cats from the house and save them from the floods.
“The cats had gone up the stairwell and gotten to the second floor and they were going out the windows and onto the eaves of the roof,” Green said. “So it was a very impressive operation. Trying to get that many cats netted and out of there in a water environment was quite the challenge.”
The same techniques that allowed for that rescue two years ago were in practice again — under more controlled circumstances — as the South Carolina Veterinary Reserve Corps partnered with the ASPCA to hold Small Animal Slackwater Rescue training on April 24-25 at Hickory Knob State Park.
The mission of the South Carolina Veterinary Reserve Corps, a Medical Reserve Corps unit formed by the S.C. Association of Veterinarians in 2014, is to develop and train volunteers who can assist with animal issues in emergencies across the state. Clemson Livestock Poultry Health assists with development and training of this volunteer group.
The 16-hour class provided students with the knowledge and practice to assist in emergencies involving small animal rescues in floodwater situations such as those that have occurred in several South Carolina counties in recent years.
Following classroom instructions on basic safety rules and boat operations, students took part in exercises on Thurmond Lake, where they performed simulated small animal retrievals from the water via boat.
While human life and safety is always the top priority in disaster situations, many people are hesitant to separate from their pets even in emergencies, so there need to be resources capable of rescuing both people and animals.
Green said that due to a rise in the frequency of hurricanes, floods and other extreme weather events, it has never been more important to incorporate animals into disaster preparedness plans.
“One of the ASPCA’s goals is to provide communities across the country with the vital resources they need to enhance emergency response capabilities for animals, and we are proud to partner with South Carolina Emergency Management Division to ensure pets and their owners are protected if disaster strikes,” Green said.
As lead agency for Emergency Support Function-17 in the state’s Emergency Operations Plan, Clemson Livestock Poultry Health coordinates resources to aid with animal and agricultural issues in disasters. To ensure enough help is available in catastrophic circumstances overwhelming local responders, Clemson assisted in facilitating an agreement between the state and ASPCA to invite extra personnel and equipment into the state during such events.
During emergencies, Livestock Poultry Health leads a team that works in the State Emergency Operations Center in 12-hour shifts to coordinate an array of agencies, organizations and individuals that work together to assist people not only with their animals but also to minimize losses to the state’s vital agricultural businesses.
About 25 volunteers, mostly South Carolina Veterinary Reserve Corps members, were on hand for April’s Small Animal Slackwater Rescue class, funded by a grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials and aimed at training them to assist people with small animals in flood situations. Animal services personnel from flood-prone counties also participated.
Kevin Elliott, of Greenville/Spartanburg Emergency Veterinary Hospital and lead veterinarian of the reserve corps, said the group had come together to learn about water rescue, the proper handling of boats and restraining of animals in floods, and safety techniques for such emergency situations.
“For every person and family in the state, there is the potential that they have a family pet or domestic animal, and those animals in times of emergency need rescuing,” Elliott said. “Sometimes it’s for a family pet that needs to be reunited with their family; other times it’s a horse, cow or pig on a farm that’s been flooded or damaged, and they need to be corralled or contained.
“It’s bigger than we realize, and most times when there’s an emergency, people always think of the people first — which we should — but it’s important to have a team that knows how to properly go in and rescue those animals.”
Theresa West, a licensed veterinary technician from Aiken, and part of the Veterinary Reserve Corps, said she chose to volunteer because the goal of helping animals is not only part of her livelihood, but also something that is dear to her heart.
“Growing up in Myrtle Beach with the amount of hurricanes and things also prepared me to know how valuable this kind of training is and how you have to evacuate your animals, and some people cannot,” West said. “This is training us to use boats with animals contained in carriers, so that’s something that if you’re used to in a veterinary clinic or even in a farm setting, getting used to handling animals in a boat is a completely different set of skills that are really helpful to have.”
The ASPCA deploys its Field Investigations & Response Team nationwide to assist in relocation, search-and-rescue, sheltering and reunification efforts during disaster situations, including wildfires, tornadoes and floods. In addition, the ASPCA works with communities across the country to develop and strengthen disaster preparedness plans and provides critical training and grants to enhance local animal response capabilities.
“These folks who participated the past two days have been saying they have learned so much and they are going to be better able to go out and help in a disaster,” said Charlotte Krugler, emergency preparedness veterinarian for Clemson Livestock Poultry Health. “I’ve been impressed with the way that ASPCA has taught the course so that it is so much about boat safety and human safety and common sense.”
Supporting ASPCA and assisting Green in teaching the course was Eric Thompson, representing the Kansas City, Missouri, Animal Search and Rescue team, who brought critical supplies and his experience to the class.
“We’re teaching these folks how to work in floodwater and slackwater situations to help animals during those floods and help during evacuation and recovery efforts,” Thompson said. “We’re seeing more and more floods becoming an issue in population areas, and people of course want to evacuate with their pets or they may not evacuate at all. So it’s important for animal emergency volunteers to have animal rescue skills so they can work safely in floodwater to help both animals and their owners.”