UC Davis, Texas A&M Team Up for Large Animal Rescue Course

UC Davis, Texas A&M Team Up for Large Animal Rescue Course

When the animals that are in need of rescue weigh more than 1,000 pounds and are frightened, rescue operations quickly become complicated and dangerous for both the animal and the rescuer.

Photo: Marvin Nauman/FEMA News

Some of the most compelling images from disaster scenes are those of animals that have been stranded and are in need of aid. However, when the animals that are in need weigh more than 1,000 pounds and are frightened, rescue operations quickly become complicated and dangerous for both the animal and the rescuer.

Through an innovative partnership, faculty and staff at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine International Animal Welfare Training Institute (UC Davis IAWTI), Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, and Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), a new continuing education course is preparing first responders and veterinarians to safely handle and rescue large animals caught in disaster.

"It began when a colleague of mine, Dr. Charlie Anderson (, and I developed a new sling to help with horses that were arriving at our clinic unable to stand," said John Madigan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UC Davis. "Soon after, we were asked to assist with the rescue of some horses and mules that were stranded in the Sierras using our sling and a helicopter lift. We were able to coordinate a successful rescue that resulted in a great deal of media coverage. From floods to hurricanes to wildfires, we have been able to perform successful rescues, and the attention that these operations garner has generated increased awareness of larger animal issues in emergency response as well as the recognition that veterinarians need to be involved."

Shortly after these early rescues, Madigan was joined by Tracey Stevens in 2008, who now serves as deputy director of the UC Davis IAWTI. A variety of funding for the institute has come forth to include an $800,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to create state and national programs that would bring animal issues together with emergency response.

"As we began to become more involved in California's emergency response efforts, we realized the missing component was veterinary medicine," said Stevens. "We decided to create a curriculum that integrates veterinary medicine into disaster response. The primary level of our efforts is to get the attention of the emergency response community and educate them about animal issues. The secondary level is where we began to teach technical skills and animal handling techniques."

With the establishment of the Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) within the CVM, Texas A&M makes an ideal collaborator for emergency response training and animal issues.

"The VET has a strong working relationship with the emergency response network in the State of Texas," said Wesley Bissett, PhD, DVM, director of the VET. "Since our beginning in 2008, we knew there was a growing need to engage not only the veterinary community to better prepare them to participate in the emergency response structure, but also to take a leadership role in educating other response organizations about animal issues and safe animal rescue procedures. The team at UC Davis brings a wealth of experience and training to the table, and we are glad to partner with them to offer this unique training opportunity. We hope that this will be the first of many such courses."

To be able to offer training on animal rescue and welfare to those outside of veterinary medicine, it is essential that the courses integrate well with the national emergency response training agenda. Madigan and Stevens have worked with federal agencies to have federal identification numbers assigned to courses they offer so that first responders are now able to utilize federal training dollars to learn how to deal with animal issues during a disaster.

"We have worked very hard to create a standardized training that connects veterinary medicine and emergency response," said Madigan. "There is such a great relationship between our team and the faculty at Texas A&M that we wanted this to be our first stop."

Stevens added that the human-animal bond is strong and that caring for animals in disaster is not only the right thing to do, it also becomes a safety issue as well.

"Without training on how to safely rescue an animal that is large and frightened, first responders are put at risk, and even the public can be at risk," said Stevens. "As a profession, veterinarians care for animals; in a disaster, it becomes an animal welfare issue. What we have enjoyed as we begin to connect animal issues and emergency response is the camaraderie that has developed between the veterinary world and the responder world. It's had to develop naturally over time, and it is very exciting to see these two areas make meaningful connections."

Bissett also noted the psychological impact that animal rescue has on first responders that has been a central part of the welcome integration of veterinary medicine into emergency response.

"For so long, responders rescuing people were forced to watch animals suffering from the impact of a disaster because they had nowhere to take these animals for evaluation and treatment," said Bissett. "As veterinarians we are uniquely poised to provide that outlet for them, giving them the ability to respond and to resolve the suffering of the animals they find. That is a huge benefit in terms of the psychological impact of a rescuer. By working with others to continue providing educational opportunities such as this continuing education program, we can strengthen those bonds between veterinarians and responders, improving the ability to take care of animals in need when they need it the most."

The first continuing education program consisted of lectures and hands-on laboratory exercises, including a simulated airlift rescue. The instructional team included members from the Texas A&M VET, the UC Davis IAWTI, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, and Texas Task Force-1. More than 60 people attended the course including veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and law enforcement and rescue operations personnel.

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