November 29, 2005

Vet School Returns From Big Easy

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Nearly three months after Katrina hit, doctors, technicians and emergency responders from Cornell Veterinary Medical College have trickled back to Ithaca. Their extensive recovery effort in Louisiana, they say, may have saved the lives of over 3,000 animals caught in the New Orleans flood.

When Prof. Michele Steffey, vet, got to Louisiana on Sept. 13, she had her work cut out for her. Many pet owners in the Big Easy had left their dogs and cats at home with nothing more than the typical flood evacuation provisions, food and water. (Human shelters will not usually accept pets.) When they didn’t return home in the usual one or two days, however, this resulted in dehydration and starvation for many animals.

Renegade relief groups had also caused damage by surveying ravaged areas and leaving any animals they found – including many that may have been strays – on the doorsteps of animal shelters.

Even inside the shelters was chaotic: a large number of aggressive pit bulls and rottweilers, which had obviously been trained as fighting dogs, had been orphaned.

This, in conjunction with rows and rows of Blackhawk helicopters and military men with enormous automatic weapons, made Steffey’s first day experience “a little surreal,” she said in an e-mail to the vet school.

Steffey started her rescue work at Parker Coliseum in Baton Rouge, La., one of three major sites for animal recovery. The coliseum served as a temporary home for animals whose owners were in human shelters for many people.

“For a mental picture,” described Catharine Reiss, a Cornell veterinary technician who went down to Louisiana with Steffey, “imagine a space the size of an ice-hockey rink with a sand floor and rows and rows of crates, airline kennels, metal kennels and small pens. Then add the sound of hundreds of dogs barking.”

The coliseum was divided into three sections. The first housed small dogs in crates; the second was comprised of stalls for larger dogs, horses and cattle; the third section was for cats. The coliseum sheltered over 400 dogs and 600 cats in total.

The major focus at Paker was on “microchipping” animals. Every animal that entered the facility was given a microchip, a radio-frequency identification device inserted beneath the skin, along with a corresponding mug shot.

The microchip itself is the size of a grain of rice, and it contains a unique identification code that can be detected using a scanner.

“Every animal with a microchip will forever be able to be identified. It was like we gave them fingerprints,” said Dawn Greenberg ’06, vet, a volunteer at the scene.

Greenberg recounted the story of a few dogs with avid chips – dogs who had been microchipped at some point prior to Katrina and whose identities had been entered into the national database. “There were some cases of dogs and cats that had microchips already, and we were able to find their owners. This … felt like winning the lottery,” Greenberg said.

In contrast to what Reiss described as “loosely organized chaos” at the coliseum, the second veterinary recovery center followed a very tight schedule. The Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., started each day with a 6 a.m. briefing and had more meetings scheduled throughout the day and sent out formal rescue groups that each had a different purpose. A feed and water team, a search and rescue team, and a triage team each operated out of Lamar-Dixon.

According to Prof. Ursula Krotscheck, vet, the “feed teams” left food and water at houses in which healthy animals were present and in areas animals are known to congregate. The plan was to remove these animals as the inflow of critical animals into the shelter decreased.

The search and rescue teams went house to house, removing any animals that were sick, dehydrated, or even “ill-looking.” Animals in bad shape were transported to the triage teams located around New Orleans.

“Most of them were just dehydrated, some had been exposed to the now extremely toxic water and were showing effects such as damage to their footpads and skin,” Krotsheck wrote to colleagues at the vet school.

Others were found with severe trauma, starvation, and nearly fatal dehydration. The ICU at Lamar-Dixon was operating out of large horse stalls, covered by an overhang and tarps.

Krotschek told the story of military officers who were willing to break orders so that they could bring animals food and water.

“One dog showed up in handcuffs because handcuffs with chains were the only thing his rescuer had on him that would double as a leash to attach to its collar. We were amazed at what these servicemen and women would do to save the animals in the areas they were patrolling” Krotscheck said.

The third veterinary recovery site was Louisiana State University. At the teaching hospital at Louisiana State University, Ward I and the ICU were the designated locations for hurricane victim pets. The ward consisted of one wall with 25 cages with treatment tables and supplies. The major afflictions were chemical burns and renal failure likely associated with water-born toxins.

In the arena at LSU, over 1,200 animals were kept in barns and cages in what looked like a “giant fairgrounds,” according to veterinary technician Britton Badgley-Babcock.

Badgley-Babcock performed a mass removal and infected dew claw removal on a female Rottweiler. The claw infection was a result of the dog being submerged in contaminated water. The Rottweiler should have weighed about 70 lbs but was actually only 40 lbs. The mass removal procedure was actually elective surgery for a problem the Rottweiler was likely afflicted with for years, but Badgley-Babcock explained that the surgery might be necessary before the dog’s transport.

“The animals who needed treatment suffered from dehydration mainly, but there were definitely many animals that were worse off. I remember a chow mix puppy that had no skin on one of its paws. There were also puppies with parvovirus. Many of these ended up being euthanized because they were so sick. There was a dog with electrical burns in its mouth. There were a few dogs that were completely emaciated – I worked with a pitbull that was 15 lbs – should have been over 45 lbs – and it could barely walk,” Greenberg said. “It was a somber experience, but definitely an unforgettable one.”

Archived article by Erica Fink
Sun News Editor