Storms strand hundreds - Veterinarians merge at Lamar-Dixon to reunite 80-90 percent with owners

Storms strand hundreds - Veterinarians merge at Lamar-Dixon to reunite 80-90 percent with owners

Nov 01, 2005

Infrastructure for horse owners and foster farms will take longer to heal than treating rescuees. Animals turned loosed required saving, but most were able to survive the floods.
BATON ROUGE, LA.—Louisiana State University (LSU) wasn't part of the state veterinarian's hurricane response or contingency plan before Katrina was a household name. But shortly after the large Category 4 storm ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it became clear that unsolicited veterinary help would be needed on an unprecedented scale to rescue and relieve thousands of animals.

About 34 equine veterinarians practice in the disaster-declared areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, according to American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) membership numbers; their operating status and levels of need were being assessed at presstime.

An estimated 45,000 horses lived in the seven Louisiana parishes affected by Katrina; thousands more lived in effected areas in Mississippi and Alabama. Hundreds were rescued and brought to staging areas in the three states.

"There was a plan in place by the state veterinarian's office and others, and to be quite honest, LSU wasn't really involved in that organizational chart pre-Katrina. But we soon became involved before the storm because many of the evacuated horses were being brought to Lamar (Lamar-Dixon Expo Center)," says Dr. Rustin Moore, director of Equine Health Studies at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, and coordinator for the LSU effort that became known as Horse Emergency Rescue Operation (HERO).

Katrina washed ashore early Monday morning, Aug. 29; the 17th Street levee was breached by noon, but conditions were too dangerous to conduct rescue operations for another two days.

"Then on Sept. 1., we set up the Horse Hurricane Help Line, and we started to get calls from everybody," Moore says. "Shortly after realizing the need, we set up rescue teams (see story). So we didn't have this great plan. We just started it, and it snowballed and grew until we were kind of coordinating the efforts."

Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, a multi-use event facility with emphasis on equestrian and 4-H activities, became a staging area that eventually evaluated almost 400 horses. It wasn't part of the original plan, either. But as Katrina moved through the Gulf of Mexico, the strength and span of the storm began to pique concern among planners, especially Bonnie Clark, horse unit coordinator under the direction of state veterinarian's office in conjunction with the LSU veterinary school equine health studies program and USDA veterinarians. She oversaw supplies, rescue operations and the return of animals with participating groups, but her first order of business was to establish relief barns that were close enough to the disaster area to be efficient but far enough away to weather the storm.

"I'm friends with the executive director at Lamar-Dixon, so I called and begged him to use the facility as a staging area, and he agreed."

With that last-minute verbal commitment, she met Dr. Denny French, LSU field service professor, to establish one of the largest equine relief centers anyone had seen. They started with nothing, not even a halter. By Sept. 1, the facility would bustle with enough feed, supplies and clinical support for 385 horses with medical charts and electronic identification logs. With just a few days planning with a volunteer crew, the operation was on track to convert displaced animals into discovered pets.

Horses qualify for disaster relief
"We started out extremely well organized. We knew that we had 63 head coming in (Sept. 1), and we either scanned the microchips or registered their tattoos," French says. "The microchips have been a really good thing in cataloging the horses in. It has been a state requirement since 1994 if they don't already have some sort of lip tattoo or unique numeric number on them. That allowed them to have some sort of a database when they came in."

French's field service students helped run the makeshift hospital by making rounds, assessing and treating the array of lacerations plaguing the animals.

The around-the-clock operation consumed the days and nights of many volunteers.

"I was sleeping in a stall for the first week," Clark says.

When DVM Newsmagazine spoke with French more than four weeks after the original 63 patients entered Lamar-Dixon, the staff only lost one horse after it arrived at the facility, and the team lost one horse off the trailer. About 190 of the 385 remained.