Veterinary first responders called into action
The storm bore a sick evening sky. The day’s surviving light was that of a yellowed bruise as first-responding veterinarians ventured into the destruction in Moore, Okla. “There were so many horses,” Dustin Brown, DVM, says. Their bodies were strewn across fields like the shards of debris that accompanied them.
Emergency personnel told Brown and other first-responding veterinarians they had to be out of the recovery zone by 8 p.m.—it was 7:45. It had taken him three hours in the chaos and traffic to get there from his clinic in Mid-City, a suburb east of Oklahoma City. “In my head I was thinking, ‘We’re gonna stretch this until dark,’” he says.
He and others went to work. “There were 15 to 20 horses that were dead or had to be euthanized, and a lot more we couldn’t get to,” Brown says. People started coming from everywhere needing help with their animals. First responders tried to get to as many as they could.
Brown looked out across the spoiled landscape. “The first thing—being human—you just stare,” he says. It’s as if it’s involuntary—the brain tries to comprehend what it’s seeing. The May 20 EF-5 tornado flattened houses, splintered trees, destroyed animals. “Your training tells you to stop and focus on what you could do,” he says. There were two young horses standing in a nearby field. “They were just huddled up together,” he says.
Brown and a few others walked slowly into the field. The ground, waterlogged even before the storm, was thick with mud. Power lines slithered across the pasture from toppled electrical towers, snapped in half by 200 mph winds. A 1,000-gallon propane tank hissed leaking gas, torpedoed 20 yards from where the horses stood like statues.
A half-mile into the field, Brown expected the horses—one a little black horse with a white blaze face and white stockings, the other a little bay horse—to back away as the group approached. But they didn’t move from the spot. “The look on their faces was indescribable,” Brown says. “It’s kind of a lost look.”
He says he’s not the type to anthropomorphize, but there was something in the horses’ eyes. “You could tell they had just been through hell. They were so scared,” he says. “I work with horses a lot; I have my own. You can just see certain things—I don’t think I’ve ever seen that look on a horse before. I didn’t know it was possible for a horse to have that emotion.”
Closer still, he saw lacerations across the horses’ bodies. There was a gash on the black horse’s hip. He reached out to touch them. “It was almost like you had to wake them up,” he says. They were sore from their injuries, but they allowed him to slip on halters to lead them from the pasture. The bay pony moved first, then the black, his hip making it harder to move. “Once I got his buddy going, he was going too,” Brown says.
They took it slow. He says once they started moving there was an almost immediate trust. He could tell the horses were familiar with people. “That was the only thing they could recognize as trustworthy,” he says.
It was a treacherous path back to the road. They snaked around power lines and drudged through the mud. Ditches were filled at points with eight-inch-deep water. “I just waded right through it,” Brown says. He thought, “If they can see me doing it, they’ll follow right along—and they did.”
Brown led the horses through the debris and cautiously past the bodies of other horses. “In that field there was probably about three or four that we had to go through,” he says of the carcasses littered before them. “The dead horses—you don’t want to get them too close—it scares them.”
They finally loaded the pair into a trailer. “I can only imagine what they saw and what they went through,” Brown says. A shelter—one of many set up in the hours after the tornado—welcomed the horses.
By then it was nearly dark. Power was out for miles. Brown didn’t go home. He went back to his clinic.
A half-block from the tornado’s wide path, Kristi Scroggins’ clinic was still standing. Monday was her day off, but as the weather turned the DVM called her staff: “If it looks bad, you get out,” she told them.
Scroggins rode out the storm with her 4-year-old daughter in the safe room of her daughter’s school. Her son, a second-grader, was safe after the tornado passed just blocks from his school. “Once I had my child in my hands, then my thought was my staff,” Scroggins says. After her children were safe at home with her husband, Scroggins went to her clinic.
She called Animal Control. “Where do you need me?” she asked.
In the hours after the storm, veterinarians at hastily set up triage stations were brought animals that were either “severely injured or they were dead,” Scroggins says. “I had a lot of broken legs. We had a dog that had a piece of wood six inches in diameter that was speared through.” He didn’t make it.
There were countless eye injuries and lacerations from debris. She says animals were tossed around in the tornado like rag dolls. “That’s the time when you feel somewhat helpless,” she says. Her clinic was standing, but there was no power. Veterinarians did what they could under the circumstances. “That’s when the community involvement really is important.”
Veterinarians in the area with operational clinics volunteered supplies, their facilities and their time for critical patients. Oklahoma State University opened its animal hospital to patients free of charge.
In the response after the storm, emotions were pushed aside. “In these times of true, true crisis, you stop and assess the situation. You just work you way through. You put your head down and get it done. You don’t have time to do anything else,” she says. “Everyone has their role to play. Once my family was OK, my role was to be a veterinarian and that’s what I did.” Scroggins worked into the night.
Brown never went home. He stayed at the clinic treating numerous walk-ins—even delivering a litter of puppies by cesarean.
By morning, Scroggins had secured the Cleveland County Fair Grounds for an emergency shelter. It took only eight hours to be completely operational. “We had enough cages, food, bowls—everything you could think of to set up a temporary shelter,” she says. “A plea to the public, that’s all it took.”
She says the spirit of people has been truly amazing. Truckloads of donations began pouring in for pets. “The sheer good in people is the one thing you can see in all this,” she says.
Brown asked for support over social media. “My Facebook page got 45,000 hits on that day,” he says. “We were getting donations from all over the country. To be able to tell people, your bill’s covered—the waterworks start. It’s just amazing, the goodness of humans in times of need like this.”
Scroggins was surprised how people who’d lost everything—and just grateful to have their pet—wouldn’t accept donated items. Brown, who spent his nights volunteering at the fair grounds, says it was amazing to watch veterinarians and veterinary technicians working side by side to do anything they could. “A lot of vets have been doing stuff out of the kindness of their hearts, but they still have to pay for drugs and the staff,” he says. He tried to repay their efforts with the excess of donations he received.
Scroggins’ days have blurred together. She oversaw all the veterinary care at the fair grounds. “I don’t even know what day we’re on. I just get up and keep going,” she says. Born and raised in Moore, the hardships of family, friends and clients—more often one and the same—have taken their toll. A dear friend, a firefighter, was one of the first on the scene at Plaza Towers Elementary where seven children were killed.
By May 29—more than a week after the tornado—Scroggins let herself step away from her work. She and her husband had tickets to country music stars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert’s fundraising concert. “They gave us an escape last night that was amazing,” she says. She saw her friend, the firefighter, smile for the first time since the tornado. Scroggins says the support of spouses and friends has kept those neck-deep in the response effort going. “Whatever we can do to make one another smile,” Scroggins says. “I think that’s how we’re gonna heal.”