Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rescuers train for when the worst happens

Delta riding instructor Julie Coles demonstrates how fingers can look like carrots to a hungry horse, and warns rescuers to feed with a flat hand.

When disaster hits, it's not just cats and dogs who will require rescue. The people who are running from the fires and the floods will leave a virtual Noah's Ark behind in their wake. Horses, chickens, cows, roosters, even exotic birds and reptiles will need passage to safety.

That's when groups like Noah's Wish swoop in. Named after the boat in the Bible that was built to rescue pairs of animals from the floods, Noah's Wish has a singular and noble mission: to save animals during disasters.

The Northern California-based organization conducts eight or nine training sessions a year in the U.S. and Canada for people hoping to join their rescuing ranks. Last weekend, they brought their road show to Richmond, British Columbia.

Animal control officers, veterinary technicians, shelter staffers, independent rescuers, and an animal communicator participated in the two-day sleepover held at a union headquarters near the Vancouver International Airport. To mimic disaster conditions more closely, participants were instructed to bring their own supplies, including air mattresses, sleeping bags, food and water.

Rabies, pet CPR, animal intake procedures, and disaster safety were covered in the classroom. But the liveliest part of the demonstration was the animals that were on hand for rescuers to practice their techniques on -- a snake, a skink, chickens, a rooster, a dog, and a set of bottle-feeding kittens. And two horses, who held up the event by an hour and a half because they were stuck in traffic.

Spending the night together allowed the rescuers to mingle and get to know each other better, which can bode well when disaster strikes if they end up converging on the same scene.

"When you're in an unfamiliar situation and you meet people you saw before, it makes it a little bit easier," said JoEllen Cimmino, director of animal health services for Noah's Wish.

She also put the rescuers through their mental paces. At the end of a long day of learning that starts early in the morning, JoEllen always covers a topic that has psychological repercussions. This time it was loss and bereavement.

"I want them tired and emotional, so they recognize if this is too much for them," she said.

In 2005, Noah's Wish rose to prominence for their high-profile response to Hurricane Katrina. The temporary animal shelter they set up outside of New Orleans in Slidell, Louisiana operated for several months, and housed up to 2,000 animals at one time.

Last year, the group responded to nine disasters, including wildfires in California and floods in Iowa and Indiana.

"When you're in this business, you want people to have a plan," JoEllen said. "You're educating from the ground up. People need a plan for the two-legged, the four-legged and the winged."

Val Lofvendahl of Reptile Rescue brought Charlie the skink to the seminar as a teaching tool for the others.

Everyone suits up for a session on decontamination.

Roger the rooster visited from the Richmond Animal Protection Society. He was a great model in all but one respect -- he was too well-behaved! His good-natured temperament isn't representative of the average rooster.

Riding instructor Julie Coles demonstrates how to get more control over a frightened horse with help from Molly.

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