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Totally Rocking Our World: Team Shelter Med!

January 9, 2020, The Association

The University of Florida’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program switched into disaster response mode this past summer when Hurricane Dorian struck. We were wowed by the incredible work—a combined 350 hours!—this small but mighty team did for the animals and shelters impacted by the storm, and wanted to share their story and mission. Read it and whoop!

The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program disaster response team is always
ready to deploy to both natural and manmade disasters.

Hurricanes, unfortunately, are nothing new to Florida. Deploying a rescue team with expertise in shelter medicine, however, takes disaster response to a new level—and helps bring lifesaving solutions. Just ask the good folks on the University of Florida’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program disaster response team.

“Keeping animals healthy in a disaster uses a lot of the same biosecurity principles as in daily shelter practice, only the stakes are higher and the scene is more chaotic,” says Cameron Moore, Program Manager. Case in point: When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas and headed for the state this past summer, the team’s 4 veterinarians and 6 staff—joined by UF veterinary students—kept their eyes on the storm and set their disaster response plan in motion as they tried to anticipate which areas might be most at risk .

Behind the scenes, there was little guessing involved as the team worked the plan to assist shelters and animals impacted by the storm. As part of the Florida State Agricultural Response Team, they attended daily briefing calls to report in on needs. As the storm neared, they set up shop as a supply redistribution depot for donated medical supplies for potentially impacted shelters. They worked their connections to perform status checks on all 160 animal shelters in the state, and to facilitate animal evacuations where staying in place would be too risky.

Oh, and there’s more.
“Several team members work remotely,” shares Moore, “so our system is designed for online collaboration, which allows us to work with volunteers from the Florida Association of Animal Welfare Organizations.” And this year, they expanded operations to collaborate with The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, which proved to be a huge help for networking receiving shelters for large-scale animal evacuations from the Bahamas.

“Our members are able to provide something utterly unique in disaster response,” explained Jim Tedford, President/CEO for The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement. “With over 1,100 members across the nation, Canada, and Australia, our members are able to quickly pull together resources, shelter space for displaced animals, and NIMS certified personnel to deploy when activated. The Association serves as a communications conduit and convener.”

All told, during the several weeks Team Shelter Med was deployed before, during and after the storm, they:
– assessed shelters’ pre-storm needs
– identified the number of animals who needed to be transported out to make room for post-storm victims
– sent out pleas to potential receiving agencies across the country
– coordinated transport of animals via ground and air, including two Wings of Rescue flights–one out of Jacksonville for dogs and cats headed to Michigan, and the other from Gainesville (cats only, headed to Wisconsin).
– followed up with shelters post-storm to identify their needs
– acted as the distribution hub for donated supplies such as vaccines, food and crates
– advised shelters on medical protocols to keep storm victims and existing population healthy as animals were being moved in and out…
…all while keeping shelters informed of storm updates. Whoa.

If it sounds like they’ve been doing this for a while, you’re right.
In 2004, Florida was struck by four hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. While human-centric disaster response systems were in place, the storms revealed a statewide lack of adequate infrastructure and equipment to address large-scale animal emergencies. In response, Dr. Cynda Crawford, then a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine and current Maddie’s Clinical Assistant Professor of Shelter Medicine, was tapped to create the UF’s Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service. Dr. Crawford crafted a disaster response course for veterinary students, amassed equipment for mobile veterinary and sheltering services, and led the veterinary teams in statewide disaster exercises. The UF VETS service has since been handed off to other faculty, so that The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program could begin to focus on developing an emergency response system for the state’s animal shelters.

Serendipity was in the mix as the team embarked on this endeavor. “Florida does not regulate shelters or have a directory of ones that exist,” explains Moore. “But since its inception in 2008, The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program had amassed a contact list for all shelters in the state as a byproduct of our data collection projects. So, when Hurricane Irma was projected to strike in 2017, the staff and students sprung into action to contact these shelters, warning them of the danger ahead, and to coordinate evacuations with state and national partners.” Unfortunately, Florida has been hit with hurricanes every year since, but it has allowed the team to evolve into the role they occupy today—maintainers of an emergency response database that is activated in the days before and after a disaster.

Learning from experience (and Facebook)
Of all the challenges Team Shelter Med has faced, Moore names the toughest in one word—communication. “Not all emergency operation centers understand they should support the needs of animals and their local shelter, so calls for help through official incident command systems can sometimes go unheeded,” she says. “At the same time, shelter staff are often dealing with their own preparation needs and setting up pet-friendly shelters, so they can be hard to reach.” Land lines and cell communication can be the first to go, but the team has found one channel that often still works—Facebook Messenger.

Preparing animals for flights or interstate transport to receiving shelters requires substantial effort in creating records and health certificates. “We have found it to be quite challenging to gather the supplies needed ahead of a disaster or mass evacuation, as most funding is only available after the event,” shares Moore. “Even something as simple but essential as a shortage of crates can create major logistical barriers.”
The crucial role that shelter medicine plays in disaster preparedness
Efforts during Hurricane Maria in 2017 revealed that evacuation of animals from harm’s way and their reunification with families had to be balanced with the management of infectious disease spread. For the past three years, starting with Hurricane Harvey, distemper has plagued animal transport from disaster zones and led to outbreaks in new areas. “Our program worked with Bahamas shelters to control the high rate of distemper in the past, so we knew that was a real threat with Dorian,” reports Moore. “In addition, this was our first experience with international animal response, which created more complexity.” To address this new challenge, Dr. Crawford put together a guide for taking in animal evacuees from the Bahamas while using solid quarantine protocols to keep resident animals safe from known and unknown disease threats. 

What to expect when you’re not expecting it
Many factors contribute to Team Shelter Med’s success—experience, expertise, major can-do attitudes, flexibility, plain-old anticipating that things could and do go wrong, and planning accordingly. “In a disaster, you can expect that communications systems will be down, animal records will be destroyed, and there will be mingling of healthy and sick animals,” says Moore. “Adhering to very solid intake protocols, protecting animal welfare, and knowing what diseases are present in the disaster region are essential. Holding animals for an extended period to allow displaced owners to reclaim them is often needed, so a plan for temporarily expanding foster and shelter capacity should be considered.”

Now You Try It…
Is your organization ready for action in the event of an emergency—and is shelter medicine part of the plan? “Disaster preparedness needs to be a top priority, and not something to think about once the storm is heading your way,” stresses Moore, who shares the most important considerations:

Team Shelter Med’s Top 5 Tips for a Kick-A$$ Disaster Preparedness Plan
1. Have a plan in place, and stay organized.
2. Make sure every animal on hand is identified with an ID band and/or microchip.
3. Have each animal’s medical records printed and ready for transport.
4. If you are not evacuating, make sure you’ve got supplies on hand for both the animals AND staff who are staying with the animals.
5. Take advantage of pre-storm transport opportunities in order to have space available to help post-storm victims.

You’ll also want to develop networks with shelter vets, local and state emergency agencies, national animal welfare orgs (go, you!—as a member of The Association, you’re already doing this!) and sister shelters before disaster strikes. “No question this makes coordinating a response easier,” says Moore. You’re also invited to reach out to The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program disaster response team for a copy of their shelter medicine guidelines, which apply to all disasters; they’re also happy to advise on specific circumstances as needed. You can contact them right here.

P.S. For extra credit and to keep the learning going, join us for the first webinars of 2020, two awesome sessions in our Shelter Medicine series, a collaboration between The AAWA and the Association of Shelter Veterinarians:

Learn more and register for Urgent Transport: Moving Large Numbers of Animals by Air and Land, January 15

Learn more and register for Population Medicine & Effective Animal Disaster Response & Recovery, January 22

About The Association
The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement is a cohort of leaders on a mission to champion, advance, and unify the animal welfare profession.