Galveston Horse Rescue Effort Wraps Up

A week and a half after Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston, Texas, horse rescue groups working the scene are scaling back their involvement as horse owners return to reclaim their animals and start the long rebuilding process.

Jerry Finch, president of Habitat for Horses, an equine protection organization based in Galveston County, played a key role in an effort to triage injured horses and support those left behind when their owners had to flee.

Finch's crew included about 30 volunteers, all with incident command system training, who worked along with local residents and law enforcement to care for the animals. Their work included supporting around 90 horses corralled and maintained on the island, as well as removing 27 injured and ill animals to a staging area on the mainland, where they received veterinary attention and supportive care.

"All in all, I'm real proud of our volunteers and what we did here," Finch said. "And I'm real proud of the people on the island for taking care of (the horses there). There are some dedicated horse people there who took care of not only the horses, but the cattle too."

Bonnie Marquette (formerly Bonnie Clark) was the organizer of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center equine staging facility in Gonzales, La., following Hurricane Katrina. She and Finch worked together in the aftermath of that storm, and they have kept in touch to offer assistance following subsequent storms, including Hurricane Gustav just a few weeks ago. When Ike changed course before landfall and focused its power directly on Galveston County, Marquette hooked up her horse trailer and headed west.

Horse in the wake of Hurricane Ike

Residents also took charge of caring for the horses that were healthy enough to remain on the island, while Habitat for Horses provided feed, hay, and gas to power a generator to deliver fresh water.

The sight in Galveston was familiar.

"It looks very similar to what Plaquemines Parish and St. Bernard looked like, with a huge tidal surge that went over the island," Marquette described. "There were a lot of horses that were still over there—(the owners) didn't expect the storm to turn that hard. There were horses running loose, cows all over the place.

"The biggest problem, like with Katrina, is they didn't have any fresh water," Marquette said. "All the standing water had salt in it because the surge was so high. All the grass was covered with salt, so they didn't have anything to eat or drink. We saw a lot of the normal type of injuries you see—barbed wire cuts across the chest, pasterns getting wrapped up in wire, puncture wounds.” Hoof problems were also rampant.

But this time Marquette and Finch were dealing with disaster on a smaller scale, and they had prompt access to the affected areas (there was a delay getting to some affected areas after Katrina). The ability to get to the horses quickly made a big difference, Marquette said, as they were able rehydrate the animals and prevent them from going into shock. Local residents pitched in to help the rescuers identify the animals; while Marquette brought a microchip scanner with her, none of the horses had chips or other forms of permanent identification.

Residents also took charge of caring for the horses that were healthy enough to remain on the island, while Habitat for Horses provided feed, hay, and gas to power a generator to deliver fresh water.

Another 27 horses went to Jack Brooks Park in Santa Fe, Texas. These were the sick and injured animals that required further care. Along with Habitat volunteers, three veterinarians, including a hoof specialist, lent their expertise to helping these animals recover.

Marquette highlighted to efforts of Dennis Jenkins, DVM, who served as the primary veterinarian at the staging area, repairing lacerations and treating puncture wounds.

"He did some really awesome stuff," Marquette said.  "He has a small private practice, so he was waylaid with his own clients, but still came out there at least once or twice a day."

Not all of the horses sustained their injuries during the hurricane. In one case, a horse presented with an extremely swollen, oozing fetlock. Marquette saw a similarity between the injury and a dog she had previously seen that had a collar embedded in its neck. Radiographs confirmed it—the horse had a wire wrapped around its fetlock, which had remained in place as the animal grew, cutting into skin and eventually bone. Jenkins performed surgery to remove the wire, and the horse is recovering.

"He's doing great now," Finch said Sept. 24. "I wish I could heal that fast."

Some Hurricane Ike stories don't have happy endings of horses and owners reuniting. While Finch describes the horses' owners as "very thankful and very happy" with the care their animals have received, not all will be permanently reunited with their horses, generally because of the storm’s devastation to their properties. About 15 horses will enter the Habitat organization, to be placed in foster homes and ultimately adopted.

"These people have nothing left," Finch said. "They have no room for the horses, so we're having to take them in and find adoptive homes for them. It's a real shame. I would love to be able to maintain these horses until they rebuild, but it's going to be January before they can rebuild.

"All things considered, (15 horses to take) is not bad … Everything's destroyed. They love these horses, but they have no place to put them and no money to deal with it," Finch said.

And then there's the matter of the home ranch. The main Habitat for Horses facility in Galveston County, which is home to about 60 horses, was almost completely destroyed. No horses were injured, but the barns and other structures sustained severe damage. While Finch and the Habitat crew are wrapping up efforts on the coast, the long work is just beginning.

"Now we have to get back to the ranch and start rebuilding," Finch said. "The building of stalls and all that again is going to be a major undertaking. It's going to take a lot of money and a lot of time."

The group has put out a call on its Web site for volunteers with construction experience, as well as building materials and other needs.

If there's one take-home message from the Galveston horse rescue, it might be one of how cooperation is key. Equine rescue representatives, cattlemen, law enforcement, animal health authorities, and residents all pitched in and worked together for the good of the animals.

"The cooperation between the residents and the law enforcement and with Habitat was really good," Marquette said. "Cooperation was an occasional issue during Katrina--perhaps Ike reflected some lessons learned."



About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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